prison_bars_web.jpgST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — A controversial program using Christian teachings to try to turn around the lives of hundreds of Minnesota prison inmates is working, according to a report from the Department of Corrections.

Participants in the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, which operates at the Minnesota women's prison in Shakopee and at a men's prison in Lino Lakes, are more likely than others to stay out of prison after their release, according to the report.

State researchers followed more than 730 former inmates released between 2003 and 2009 and found that those who were part of the program reduced their risks of returning by as much as 40 percent.

State officials are hailing the program as a cost-effective success. They say it is a good deal because the state provides the space and the program pays everything else.

Each prison has a dedicated area where InnerChange inmates live together, eat together and pray together. The programs have a combined 200 inmates who take daily classes based on Christian principles.

The inmates' numbers are nearly matched by volunteers: About 150 Christians from across the state serve as mentors to InnerChange participants. The volunteers provide emotional support and help inmates leaving prison find housing and jobs — two obstacles that, unless overcome, can end up sending other offenders back to prison.

David Crist, deputy commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Corrections, said state officials created a secular program modeled in part on InnerChange's mentoring component. But he said faith might be a critical element in making mentoring work.

“The program was supposed to be targeted for people who had a short period of time before release,” said Steve Hokonson, a former chaplains supervisor at Lino Lakes prison.

The state first introduced InnerChange there in 2006.

Information from: Minnesota Public Radio News,