Something impacted the culture of our prisons when the Texas Field Ministers arrived. The Texas Field Ministers brought new and positive “role-models” as scholar-mentors into the prison system. Inmates are stunned to find out that Field Ministers don’t intimidate; they don’t retaliate, can’t be bought, have markedly different countenances, and live their lives in total contrast to the gaming, deceit, and distrusting culture in the prison. They are not snitches; they are not spies for the warden. The Field Ministers are also front-line spiritual responders: able to listen well, hear what cannot be shared with others, pray, and skillfully apply hope-filled counsel. The Field Ministers, despite difficult circumstances, extend the same comfort to others that they have received as they have been comforted by God. Because of the gospel of Christ Jesus, Field Ministers can bring hope to people who are without hope. They bring into the prison a new kind of peer-influence.
On the inside, the prisons are operated by professionally trained correctional officials who see that their prisons are accredited, secure, and orderly. Corrections officials work hard to see that the inmates are housed, protected, fed, secured, and that inmates follow specific rules. These officials are aided by security cameras and many educational, vocational, and work-related activities which inmates may volunteer for, or be assigned to. The inside of the prison may be administratively clean and well managed, but among the inmates themselves it is also a place of their illegal activities which create an atmosphere of suffering, isolation, and darkness. The prison officials cannot control, direct, or manage the “inmate culture” of the prison population. But now, unit Wardens are able to grant Field Ministers strategic access to the units to perform their essential job functions. The Field Ministers positively impact the prison culture.
Inmate Prison Culture
The inmate prison culture as we define it is that unseen but pervasive force of the inmates’ own behavioral codes which exist in all prisons. This unseen social structure is actually a complex, well-defined but amorphous world that only the inmates themselves can see and experience. It is their own world within their own prison, a world with its own language and secret signs. No two prison cultures are identical. Yet, each unseen social force has its own construct of elected officials, self-appointed officials, security and enforcement personnel, judges, juries, and first-responders. Most prison cultures will even have their own equivalent of death row. Yet, all these individuals are working, for the most part in most prisons, totally against the existing authority of the prison administration. A prison culture is a structure of behavioral codes which the inmates themselves establish. It totally structures the fabric of the inmates’ daily lives, and it legislates and regulates their own behavior in the prison community.
The inmate culture has a power structure: it has multiple pecking orders, its own invisible, unwritten, highly-enforced set of rules, its own vocabulary, its own high-priests of the drug and contraband traffic, its own reward and punishment system, its own system of controls, gamers and deal-makers, and its own key influencers who set policy and assign punishment or even death. This unseen part of the prison life, totally controlled by the social and political fabric of the prisoners themselves, is what we identify as the inmate culture of the prison. That aspect of prison life is unseen by those who are not incarcerated. To the inmates, the inmate culture defines their lives minute by minute, every day of their lives.
Inmate Culture Change
We define the inmate culture change as one which transforms over time, in any prison which has Field Ministers, from negative to positive or from immoral to moral. The inmate culture changes from one in which immoral codes are ubiquitous, negative, and gang-led with such prevailing elements as lack of respect for authority, aggression, inmate-on-inmate violence, predation, extortion, drug infestation, gaming, blackmail, and facility damage, to a culture in which moral codes are pervasive and positive influenced by Field Ministers with such prevailing elements as respect for authority, peace, sobriety, kindness, sanity, and safety.
Changing the inmate culture of prisons has not, from our observation, been the focus of most of the efforts at “prison reform.” Many people have worked on the outside of prisons for decades to bring mandated prison reform. They often find ways to improve the field of corrections and the living standards for incarceration. These people may be academics, professors, researchers, or legislators focused on changing the prison from the outside in. In contrast, The Heart of Texas Foundation is focused on changing the prison from the inside out.
Through the hope of the gospel and good moral influence of responsible Field Ministers as scholar-mentors, we want the men and women who are incarcerated to know a better life and achieve new levels of respect for others. Field Ministers, and those they influence, reduce the violence, extortion, drug dependence, gaming, and blackmail; and increase safety and service to others. The existing inmate moral codes define the prison’s inmate culture. These codes dominate all inmate lives. These existing moral codes typically have no true respect for authority, or individual rights. They reject most of the higher standards of morality that free citizens practice. The Heart of Texas Foundation does not have as our defining purpose to enter the prison in order to “win hearts for Jesus” and then leave the premises. We are there to serve the spiritual, educational, and societal needs of the inmates with whom we work and to equip them to be able to deliver positive service to others. It is they who help impact the inmate prison culture to achieve new and higher standards of living.
The Heart of Texas Foundation makes a lifelong commitment to men and women who enter the Texas Field Ministers Program and successfully keep their jobs as Field Ministers.
Prison Culture: Inmate to Inmate
But what is the inmate culture actually like? First of all, the inmate culture is an unseen society. It exists “way behind the gates,” and can’t be seen by the security cameras. The inmate culture is the structure which is totally controlled by the social and political fabric established by the inmates themselves. It is enforced, and even secured by, the inmates of influence. The prison’s inmate culture is in effect a prison inside the prison. The inmate culture is a prison without walls; it is a prison of the inmates’ own making. Its chains are invisible, yet all inmates spend every minute of every day in bondage to that culture. The inmate culture has its own economy, fences, boundaries, minefields, sentries, spies, snitches, extortionists, predators, enforcers, and hierarchies of leadership. The inmate culture is ordained and managed by the most influential inmates in the prison. Whether on death row, in restricted housing, or in general population, inmate leadership exerts its commands and relentlessly supervises its troops. And the most influential inmates—the ones who dominate the rules of the culture—are those who are the meanest, the most unhinged, and those with the longest sentences. Long sentences are always associated with extremely violent or aggravated crimes. Unfortunately, the inmate-controlled social structure typically contributes to whatever rebelliousness, darkness, hopelessness, depression, anger, and suffering that exists in each prison.
The impact and influence Field Ministers can have takes time, but many measurable changes can occur relatively quickly. It is not possible to count the fights that never happen and subsequent trips to the hospital that are avoided due to the skillful peacemaking work of the Field Ministers. Culture change occurs slowly but with very clear signatures, some of which are noticeable by security, and some which are not immediately seen by security. As the inmates experience the influence of the volunteer inmate Field Ministers, the prison inmates themselves see areas where the culture is impacted—for the good. The prison inmates see the culture changes occurring long before anyone else can see or document those changes.
Prison Culture: Inmate to TDCJ
We all wish that there was no need for prisons. Prison reform through legislation and accreditation are two of the primary ways improvements have been made in the way men and women are incarcerated. Prison inmate cultures, though, cannot be changed by public policy, elected officials, research teams, or by our trained and dedicated prison officials. Both external prison reform, including the excellent leadership in Corrections as Texas has, and internal prison reform, from the inmate men and women themselves, can work together for good to bring true prison reform, as we define it.
The most powerful influence for change among the men and women who live in the prisons is the influence of another inmate. If the resulting influence brought upon the leaders in the old inmate culture (predators, gang leaders, shot-callers, enforcers, mommas, grandmommas) could be a godly influence, it is our experience that the leaders usually want to know more. Field Ministers all have extremely long sentences. They relate. They speak in a way that is heard. When they have joy despite a very long prison sentence, they have enormous impact on men and women with very little time. Statistics show that suicide is most rampant in the first three years of incarceration. This is true even if someone receives a five year sentence, not long relative to a Field Minister’s sentence. Field Ministers can relate to this despair and help men and women make the most of their time rather than spend years in despair and gaming or even more murder or suicide. The sobering fact is this: what has kept the prison cultures dark, incestuous, deceitful, violent, and anti-social, is that the typical influence inmates have on one another is usually an immoral influence, rather than a moral influence. We are here to equip long-term inmates so that they can be part of changing that, and we are doing so Field Minister by Field Minister.