From Bars to Bibles 

Is Montana ready for a faith-based alternative to jail?

Behind bars there are often crises of faith, and Jan Henderson has seen or heard them all.

“Some inmate will come to me and ask, ‘How can I believe in God when my father molested me all my life?’” Henderson says. “OK, God, how do I answer that one?”

Henderson is not a prison guard, social worker or public defender, but spends much of her free time ministering to inmates in the Missoula County Detention Center in an effort to redirect the course their lives have taken. Her rudder is the Bible and the winds of change the word of God.

“Some of these people need to hit rock bottom before they can find a way out,” she says. “I’m here to help show them the light.”

Henderson, a religious coordinator in the detention center, works under the rubric of a group known as Teen Challenge, an international, nonprofit, faith-based organization that, according to its literature, “works to help people become mentally sound, emotionally balanced, socially adjusted, physically well and spiritually alive” through Christian teachings of community responsibility and self-discipline. Beginning in October, Henderson and Teen Challenge will open a residential facility at 1830 South Avenue to house up to six women for at least one year at a time and provide them an effective alternative to incarceration.

The name, Teen Challenge, is something of a misnomer, since the median age of the individuals who go through the program in the Pacific Northwest is in the mid-20s. Established in 1958 by the Rev. Dave Wilkerson to cope with the growing gang problem of inner-city youths in New York City, Teen Challenge has since expanded to become an international ministry with 130 chapters in 43 states and Puerto Rico, and 66 ministries in other nations. Teen Challenge centers in the Pacific Northwest such as the Spokane Men’s Center, the Yakima Women’s Center and Montana Outreach in Lolo, work predominantly with individuals 18 years or older.

Teen Challenge receives no public funding, nor is it underwritten by any grant, organization or agency. Individuals who voluntarily enter the program—as a faith-based entity, no one is sentenced there against their will—are asked to contribute from their own resources or obtain sponsors for at least 50 percent of the cost of their stay. However, Teen Challenge says it turns no one away for any reason, either for lack of resources or for lifestyle choices that run contrary to Christian teachings, such as homosexuality.

Instead, each center runs work programs to raise its own operating funds, though their primary source of support comes from donations from individuals, businesses, churches and other organizations. In fact, many of the centers are now staffed by individuals who went through the program themselves.

The problem, explains Henderson, is not necessarily a lack of funding, but rather getting judges to consider sentencing people to Teen Challenge. In Montana, once a judge sentences a person to the Montana Department of Corrections (DOC), the judge has no say as to what DOC does with that inmate, and there are only a limited number of alternatives to incarceration available.

Under the current system, individuals convicted of a crime who receive a DOC commitment (about one-third of all criminal convictions) have four options: They can be placed on probation, in an Intensive Supervision Program, a pre-release center, or the boot camp in Deer Lodge. All alternatives are state-operated, except for the pre-release centers, which are private, nonprofit Montana corporations funded with public dollars.

According to Mike Ferriter, division administrator for community corrections in Helena, about 75 percent of all felons in Montana serve their time under community supervision. Unfortunately, for programs like Teen Challenge, gaining access to the correctional system is no easy task and would require an order from the DOC director or change in the law by the Legislature.

“There’s got to be a change,” says Henderson. “When you’ve got this huge recidivism rate nationwide, obviously we’re not doing something right.”

In fact, Teen Challenge, which operates under strict certification guidelines that permit its inmates (or “students,” as they’re called) no alcohol, drugs or even tobacco, boasts a recidivism rate of less than 15 percent, far lower than the national average. Individuals are expected to attend Bible classes several times each week and commit to the program for a minimum of one year.

Additionally, the program imposes no financial cost whatsoever on taxpayers. In contrast, the cost for Montana taxpayers for a female inmate in a pre-release center is $53.20 per day, for the Women’s Prison, $104.64 per day and for boot camp, $118.55 per day.

“The more alternatives there are, the better, as long as they’re good, well-funded, viable, cohesive places,” says Nik Geranios, a Missoula County public defender. “It’s terrifying that the United States is five to eight times ahead of all the other industrialized countries in putting people in jail. But I know there are times when the judges feel like there aren’t many options available to them.”

“I’m not looking for any state or federal funding, period,” says Henderson. “I just want to help these people.”

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