Special Report: Bringing faith behind bars

Special Report: Bringing faith behind bars »Play Video

WILSONVILLE, Ore. - They say it's a whole different way of thinking about themselves, about others and about their future.

And it all began with a little lady - Christina Gould - who says she's on a mission from God to bring faith behind bars.

It's often difficult to find hope when you're locked behind razor wire. But once a week, dozens of women gather to study and sing. They say they're seeing a glimpse of a better life.

Tamara Dolan closes her eyes and raises her hands. She says her new faith has allowed her to move on from her methamphetamine distribution conviction.

"I am very blessed that I am in here," she said. "I know it sounds crazy. But God put me here for a reason."

Gould is like gold to these ladies. She started the Oregon Women's Prison Ministry eight years ago.

"Once they come to our service, over the time they grow," she said. "They thank God and they change."

Gould and her volunteers visit inmates at Coffee Creek prison and the Washington County jail.

The ministry leaders find that as they teach, the inmates are not the only ones being changed.

"These women have just found their way into our hearts, into my heart," said one ministry leader. "I love them. I care about them. I find myself thinking about them when I'm not here."

About all Rachel Swarez has left of prison are some photos of her time there. The former inmate is proof that the prison ministry extends beyond the barbed wire.

"I love my life. My life is great," she said. "Like I said, I don't know where I would be if it wasn't for Christine."

Swarez received counseling and clothes once she was out on her own. Her mom and oldest son have seen big changes. She now has a job at a grocery store and an apartment.

"And I have purpose. That's one thing that I didn't have before," Swarez said. "I didn't have a purpose."

Swarez served three and a half years in prison in connection with a fatal drunk driving crash four years ago on West Union Road. She had about 10 drinks that evening. Her boyfriend was thrown out of the car and onto the road.

"And I rolled him over to see if he's OK, and he just started gurgling blood," she said. "And the next think I know, he's just snoring."

He died four days later - and Swarez was sentenced to prison. It was there she found focus.

"Before I went to prison I was just running amok. I wasn't even a mother to my children, you know, cause of my lifestyle," she said.

Her son, Fidel Sanchez, said he notices a difference now.

"Obviously I live with her and she is always in my business and wants to know what's going on, always wants to spend time," he said. "Just more of a mom."

Inmate Nico Reyes was drug addicted and stealing for her habit. Now she's planning her life out of prison.

"They instilled in me that it's not too late," Reyes said. "I can still be a good, productive citizen."

The ladies find good examples in the volunteers. The prison chaplain says that is crucial.

"Over time, the inmates figure out that these people are genuinely here to help us," Reyes said. "They are not just on a mission for themselves."

Tamara Dolan says she has a new perspective – and hope - because of the ministry.

"There's life outside of this world," she said. "And that's a blessing."

So does this really work at reducing crime?

Oregon women's prison ministry does not track how many women get re-arrested after being in its program. But a similar national program called prison fellowship has done studies. It found that graduates of its faith-based program were 50 percent less likely to be re-arrested.