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ISR’s Byron Johnson-More God, Less Crime conference

The itemConference focuses on helping inmates through faith-based programs

Posted: Tuesday, November 10, 2015 7:25 am

On a day proclaimed as Emmett Solomon Day by Huntsville Mayor Mac Woodward, an audience of about 100 assembled at the Texas Prison Museum on Saturday for a day-long conference entitled “More God, Less Crime,” with a focus on dissuading current prison inmates from committing future crimes, strengthened by discovering faith in God.

Opening the meeting, Woodward thanked the attendees — composed largely of current and retired Texas Department of Criminal Justice personnel and prison-system volunteers — for coming. He presented a framed proclamation to Janet Solomon, widow of the founder and executive director of Huntsville-based Restorative Justice Ministries, who died in April 2014 at age 78.

 Keynote speaker Dr. Byron Johnson, distinguished professor of social sciences and director of the Institute for the Studies of Religion at Baylor University, reported on recent studies showing dramatic crime reductions in West Dallas neighborhoods, helped largely by faith-based programs for men and women while still in prison.

According to Johnson, one recent parolee told him, “I made it (i.e., avoided a return to prison) because I had a mentor I couldn’t let down,” emphasizing the importance of prison ministries, chaplains and volunteers working with offenders to strengthen their belief in God.

A panel of three wardens addressed their experiences with faith-based initiatives in reducing crime. Panelists included Mike Roesler, warden at the Ellis Unit north of Huntsville; Billy Lewis, warden at the J.W. Hamilton Unit in Bryan-College Station; and retired warden Marty Hudspeth formerly of the Darrington Unit in Rosharon. Rev. Vance Drum, TDCJ’s director of chaplains, moderated the panel.

After lunch, retired warden Vernon Pittman, of College Station, introduced three former offenders, each of whom had been exposed to faith-based initiatives during their imprisonment and who were currently living productive lives. A common theme of their talks was that life-changing progress can be made while in prison that helps lead to a lawful, better-structured life after being released from incarceration.

As a follow-up to the conference, on Sunday Rev. Tommy Lyles, chaplain of Lovelady’s Eastham Unit, delivered a guest sermon at Huntsville’s First United Methodist Church. Lyles reported that:

• At the end of 2014, a total of 150,361 men and women were incarcerated in the 106 Texas prisons.

• At the same time, 391,479 Texas men and women were under some form of supervision, such as parole, for a total of more than half a million Texans (541,840) involved in what Lyles termed the “largest prison system in the free world.”

• Inmate demographics show that 35 percent of Texas offenders are black, 33 percent Hispanic and 32 percent Anglo-American. Their average age is 38, average IQ is 90, and average length of sentence is 18 years.

• The recidivism rate (i.e., return to prison for new offenses after being released from prison) is currently at 22 percent in Texas, down from 80 percent a few years ago, with faith-based programs playing an important role.

Lyles, in his two years at the Eastham Unit, has baptized a total of 290 inmates, assisted in his ministries by some of the 23,000 TDCJ volunteers currently working in prison ministries.

Speaking of the volunteers, Lyles said, “I pray to God we had more!”