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One of three prison inmates is baptized Friday at the Texas Department

of Criminal Justice’s Estelle High-Security Unit in Huntsville.

 

HUNTSVILLE — One by one, the three tattooed toughs were ushered on Friday into the small cinder-block ante room deep inside Texas’ highest-security prison, each shackled at the waist with handcuffs locked to a thick leather belt, flanked by two guards wearing flak vests, police batons and pepper spray.

Then, after “Amazing Grace” was played on a harmonica, each was escorted to a galvanized horse trough filled with water at one end of the stark room, where their handcuffs were removed, the guards still at their sides. Reciting an evangelist’s cadence of blessings and prayers, a prison chaplain then immersed each man in the cool water, proclaiming each to be “God’s children, born again.”

Though back in shackles, the convicts smiled broadly as they were escorted out, trailing water in their soaked prison white uniforms as a small group of prison officials looked on.

“This is my happiest day,” said Davey Enriquez, 33, a former member of the Pistoleros crime gang who is serving a 99-year sentence for committing home invasion robberies in the Texas Panhandle. “I talked to my mom for the first time in six years a few days ago, but I didn’t tell her about this. She’s going to be real surprised.”

The scene inside the Estelle High-Security Unit — baptisms occur occasionally in state prisons, never inside the highest-security lockdown — marked the first fruits of a five-year initiative by state officials to put religion inside the state’s toughest lockups, using convicts with long sentences as ministers to convert other prisoners to turn their lives around by becoming Christians.

Two other convicts were to have been baptized. But officials said one was freed on parole, and another — a Muslim inmate — backed out.

‘Another chance’

 
Estelle is one of six state prisons where the convict ministers have been deployed, part of a first class of 36 ministers that graduated 10 months ago from a prison seminary established four years ago at the Darrington Unit, outside Rosharon southwest of Houston.
 

“What I am witnessing here is amazing. We are seeing the Lord at work, changing hearts and lives,” said state Sen. John Whit-mire, D-Houston, who pushed along with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, to establish the seminary program, which is modeled after a successful similar program in Louisiana. “This goes to show what can happen when you give people another chance.

“And while you may say: ‘I’ll never be free in this world, but I know that I will be free in the next world.’ ”

For Enriquez, the path to Friday’s baptism began months ago when Michael Townsend, 52, who is serving 40 years for attempted capital murder from Comanche, arrived with five other “field ministers” at Estelle. Townsend was the sole minister assigned to the high-security unit that houses just over 600 of the most dangerous convicts Texas incarcerates.

“It took a while for the men to accept me,” Townsend told the Houston Chronicle. “My father is a pastor. I lived a life of rebellion. But I came here half-cocked, not knowing the demonic warfare that I’d encounter. People said, ‘Get away from my cell, Christian.’ They wouldn’t talk. They tried to chunk (feces) at me. But the Lord gave me a passion to make this work, and eventually the Lord began to open doors.”

For Enriquez and the other two men who were baptized, that opening eventually came because Townsend was wearing prison whites, just like them.

“Unless you lived on my side of the door (in a prison cell), most people won’t listen to you,” said Robert Ring, 55, one of the three baptized convicts. He has served 17 years of a 25-year sentence for cocaine possession from Houston, his third stretch in Texas prisons since 1986.

“I accepted the Lord three years ago, but this (prison ministry) program is exactly what the place needs. ... It has saved my life.”

The third convict, Ryan Castro, 38, serving eight years for burglary in Aransas Pass, said he decided to be baptized after struggling with his religious conversion in prison. He said Townsend helped him work through that.

“I was tired of this hidden hate, you know, love one minute and hate the next,” he said, pointing to tattoos on each side of his eyes that read “Out” and “Law.”

“I was an outlaw, but that was before,” he said. “I’ve changed. I feel like I’m living the spirit of God in here.”

Like the other two men, he said he had attended church when he was a boy, but strayed from his faith and fell into a life of crime. Now, all three are looking forward with hope at a new life.

Never expected to see it

Warden Tony O’Hare, a 29-year veteran of Texas prisons, said the change in atmosphere from the minister program is noticeable. “It is amazing, yes sir,” he told a reporter.

Echoing that sentiment were the Rev. Billy Holmes, pastor of Huntsville’s Power of Faith Community Church, and the Rev. Danny Biddy, pastor of Old River Baptist Church outside Mont Belvieu, east of Houston, who attended Friday’s ceremony as a guest of Whitmire and provided the harmonica solo. So, too, did the correctional officers who ringed the room at the baptism, most of whom said they never expected to see such an event inside the razor-wire perimeter fence, with offenders serving such long sentences for serious crimes.

“The field ministers have made a big difference here in a very short period of time, not just in high-security but in the general population at Estelle,” said Rich Pritchard, a volunteer chaplain who has worked here for three years. “I never thought I’d see this in a Texas prison. But it’s all God, and miracles do happen, you know.” mike.ward@chron.com twitter.com/ChronicleMike