By Lynda Jones
After 20 years of utilizing faith-based programs in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) prison system, the recidivism rate has dropped dramatically, according to Dr. Vance Drum, TDCJ's new Director of Chaplaincy Programs.
Drum, a resident of Houston County since 1985, has more than 30 years experience as a correctional chaplain within the TDCJ.
He was chaplain at the Eastham Unit for nearly 28 years, which he described as a wonderful ministry. In 2012 he became the regional chaplain for Region 1, which encompasses East Texas, including 14 prisons and 17 chaplains.
He just recently was chosen to be director of the TDCJ Chaplaincy Programs. He now is over 126 chaplains in Texas, including five parole chaplains and six regional chaplains on 109 prison units.
"I believe that good programming, faith-based, rehabilitative re-entry programming has a significant effect on offenders' lives," Drum said. "It makes it better for the wardens because if anybody turns to the Lord in prison, and starts really believing that God's up there and God has expectations for us and the 10 Commandments really mean something, that you really shouldn't kill and steal and all that, it will affect their behavior in a positive way.
"Our aim is to promote positive change in offender behavior; that's our TDCJ mission and also part of our chaplaincy mission."
"Chaplaincy programming is a big part of that in the Texas prison system," Drum explained. "I experienced that at Eastham. Eastham, when I went there, was not a good place at all. It was one of the worst prisons. In fact, the year after I went there, in 1986 Newsweek Magazine came out with a cover story called 'Inside America's Toughest Prison', which was all about the Eastham prison, which was right here in Houston County."
However, Eastham changed over the years, Drum said, and he feels blessed to have been involved in the transformation.
"We got new wardens in, forward-looking wardens who believed in programs, so programs came into that unit and that unit dramatically changed for the better. It was a big prison culture transformation at Eastham," he said.
As Drum discussed the TDCJ chaplaincy programs, he explained that normally there is not much turnover of correctional chaplains, but due to retirements, there currently is a large turnover.
"As of January, five of the six regional chaplains will be new on their job in the last 10 months," he said. "A lot of prisons opened in the early 1990s . . . and a lot of chaplains did 20 years . . . there's not much turnover in chaplains at all. They like their job; they're helping people and that's what chaplains do, but after spending 20 years in prison they can retire, so a lot of them are retiring these days."
Just because of retirements, he said, 10 of the 17 chaplains in Region 1 are new.
The same is true of the regional chaplains, Drum said.
" There are six regions in the whole state so I work especially with them, and with the individual chaplains periodically also," Drum explained.
"What I'm trying to do as director is through the regional chaplains and through them the unit chaplains, is to guide them into providing really helpful rehabilitative re-entry programming for all the 155,000 offenders in the TDCJ, in prison," he said.
Drum stressed that rehabilitative re-entry programming is working.
"It's been working for about 20 years, especially emphasizing it. As a result, the recidivism rate, that is the return to prison after three years out, over the last 20 years has dropped dramatically in Texas from about 75% 20 years ago to the current recidivism rate, which is about 22%," he said.
"I've seen that happen first hand over the years, and I believe in long tenure. If you're doing a good job, long tenure really helps because you sort of become a part of the culture at the prisons, chaplains do. They really can do a lot of good if they stay and work at it in a good way," he continued.
Drum is proud of the success rate of faith-based, rehabilitative re-entry programming within the TDCJ.
"Texas is on a good track with the TDCJ promoting these good programs, and my goal now is to continue that and enhance it by what I've seen and what I know works. I'm really thankful that I was selected to be in this job and we'll just give it the best we have. I believe God helps us in all these things to do a good job and to help many people," said. "Many, many people are in prison because they did not have early guidance or help. A lot of prisoners had good parents, but many prisoners did not have good parents who gave them guidance and direction in their lives. They got with the wrong crowd and they went to prison, sometimes for a very long time . . . For many of these prisoners, we're serving as surrogate dads and moms for them and we're giving them what they may not have gotten early in their lives, so I'm glad we're doing what we're doing."
Drum also credits three major entities for the success of the chaplaincy programs in Texas.
"Right now, in the past three or four years, the three big entities in Texas that govern what we do have all come together on the same page . . . The Legislature, the Texas Board of Criminal Justice and our executive leadership in TDCJ, have all come together promoting good programs to help offenders in a new way, a renewed emphasis on faith-based, rehabilitative and re-entry programming. They all are supportive of the chaplaincy. I'm thankful for it because it means that we're able to do what we want to do which we know works; it's a blessing."
Drum also is excited about the opportunity to lead correctional chaplains across the nation to do what the TDCJ chaplains are doing. Last month he was elected to his second term as president of the American Correctional Chaplains Association, historically the first affiliate of the American Correctional Association which began in 1870.
Unit chaplains can feel isolated from their peers, so it's good to meet other people with the same goals, Drum explained.
Drum concluded, "The good news is a significant number of inmates in prison do have a life direction change. Not all of them do, they have to want it, but a significant number do and that's all the result of good chaplaincy programming. That's what I'm excited about."