GATESVILLE, Texas - The sound of praise and worship can be heard behind the gates of the Dr. Layne Murray unit at the Gatesville Maximum Security prison.
For the women behind bars at the prison, worshipping God is a whole new way of life. Most of those serving time here have never known real love; only a life of drugs, violence, and sexual abuse.
Twenty-seven-year-old LaQuita Davis was sent to prison when she was only 15 years old. She was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder.
"It's bad yeah, we're in prison, but you know that it's going to be okay because God has you," she told CBN News.
Check below to watch amazing testimonies from inmates whose lives have been changed through the faith-based prison dorm.
From Criminal to Faithful
Volunteer missionaries who run the "Faith Dorm" at the prison have seen the program change even the most hardened criminals into God-fearing, faithful followers of Jesus Christ.
Cindy Mendoza is serving a life sentence for the murder of her fiance's father.
"I took a man's life," she explained. "I was drunk and I was high and we had an argument that turned into a fight and I killed him. Yes, I'm very remorseful for what I did and what's happened, but I can't bring him back."
"But I didn't want his death to go in vain, and I wanted to do any and everything I could to be a different person," she continued.
Inmate Margaret Espree said the difference between being in the "Faith Dorm" and secular units at the prison is like night and day. Espree was sentenced to eight years for aggravated assault. She is also serving 20 years for a previous murder charge.
"When I was in the other dorms, it was kind of hard," she recalled. "We had so much negativity there."
"Coming in here is like that cherry on that icing on that Sundae 'cause you're learning and you're growing," she said.
Faith Dorm is the partnership between prison officials, the government, and ministry volunteers. The dorm's director, Linda Strom, has ministered to thousands of female inmates during the past 34 years.
"About three-and-a-half years ago, I got a call from a friend that's a good warden and a chaplain," she said, explaining how the "Faith Based" Dorm got its start. "And they said that they wanted to start a faith-based dorm and would I be interested in directing it."
Strom said she jumped at the chance to help women change their lives through a course of spiritual and life lessons.
"We take 18 months and we cover curriculum that tells them how to walk out their faith, how to go deeper with Jesus," she said.
A Saving Grace
Participation in the Faith Dorm is not mandatory. Inmates who participate want to change their lives from the inside out. It was a change Espree longed for all her life.
"God has brought me from being bitter, beaten, ugly, aggravated, assaults, murders," she said.
Davis said being in the Faith Dorm has helped her to overcome the rage that once controlled her life.
"I've been kicked off of every unit," she explained. "It got to the point where this was my very last unit, my very last chance. I didn't have anywhere else to go."
Fifty-six women live in the Faith Dorm. They share everything from bathrooms to bibles. They love each other like sisters.
Pam Purillo was serving time on death row for murder. She entered a plea bargain in order to get a life sentence - two days away from being executed by the state of Texas. She never dreamed she would walk off of death row. Today she lives in the Faith Dorm.
Karla Faye Tucker's Dream
What's happening at the faith-based dorm at the Murray unit of the Gatesville prison is actually a dream come true for one former death row inmate.
That inmate was Karla Faye Tucker, who had a dream and a vision to see other women fall in love with Jesus Christ and become disciples and follow His word.
Tucker was convicted of murdering two people in 1984. She was housed in a unit not far from the Layne Murray Unit at Gatesville. Her 1998 execution and widely publicized conversion to Christianity drew international attention.
She was the first woman to be executed in Texas since the Civil War. Her story was featured several times on The 700 Club. Click here and here to watch Tucker's story on The 700 Club.
Strom was Tucker's spiritual advisor and mentor.
"When Karla was waiting for her execution, she wrote a program and the program was geared to teaching women in white how to go deep with God, relationships, all that kind of thing," Strom explained.
Purillo was Tucker's best friend and prayer partner on death row.
"Karla had a dream that we would have areas of the prison that was dedicated just to the girls that were trying to live a Christ centered life," Purillo said.
"No way would I have ever dreamed I would come to Layne Murray and live in the faith-based dorm when the dream started with Karla," she explained.
'Re-Entering' Prison Missionaries
Assistant Warden Judy Scott praised the dorm for the good work she has witnessed.
"It's a very positive on them, as well as their family," she told CBN News. "I also see it during visitation that they're trying to bond better with their family members and be better people."
After 18 months, the women in the faith-based dorm graduate. They then re-enter the general prison population as missionaries to other female inmates at the prison.
"I plan to go out and minister the word of God, tell my testimony to those that are lost out there," Espree said.
The women in the Faith Dorm say being there has made them free. The program is so successful that other prisons in Texas are also using the program.
There are 22 faith dorms in the Texas prison system, and a growing number of them are springing up across the country.
Pulled Out of the Pit
Meanwhile, some question the motivation of the inmates in the program. Skeptics say it only offers "jailhouse religion."
Because the program has only operated for the past three years at the Gatesville prison, there is no clear evidence yet that it reduces the chances an offender will return to prison.
But the women in the program say living in the dorm has saved their lives in more ways than one.
"Call it whatever you want, but it's Jesus and it's Jesus or nothing and he saved me," Mendoza said. "He saved me, and it's like that Psalm 40 says when he pulls you out of that pit."
Watch Amazing Testimonies:
- LaQuita Davis: Freed from Anger
Davis grew up in the church but after one night with the wrong crowd, she found herself on the wrong side of the law. Convicted of attempted capital murder in 2000, she was sentenced to 40 years in prison at 15-years old. She tells the story of how God has taken away all the pain and anger she was held inside.
- Pam Purillo: Deliverance from Death Row
Purillo was given the death penalty for the 1980 murders of two hitchhikers. She spent over 20 years on death row, serving much of that time with fellow death row inmate Karla Faye Tucker. Tucker was executed in 1998. But after a plea agreement with the state of Texas, Purillo is now serving a life sentence with no chance of parole. She shares how God delivered her from death to life.
- Cindy Mendoza: Faith and Forgiveness
Mendoza is serving a life sentence for murder. Hear how the family of Mendoz's victim forgave her and how she is now serving Jesus Christ behind the walls of prison.
- Margaret Espree: Ministering to Others
Espree is serving a 20 year sentence for aggravated assault and murder. After a dramatic conversion to Christianity, she now ministers to others. Director LInda Strom: How it All Started: Hear the story of how the Faith Based Dorm got it's start and how it's even changed Strom's life.
- Director Linda Strom: How It All Started
Hear the story of how the Faith Based Dorm got it's start and how it's even changed Strom's life.
- Karla Faye Tucker on The 700 Club
Tucker was convicted of murdering two people in 1984. Her 1998 execution and widely publicized conversion to Christianity drew international attention. She had a dream to see other women fall in love with Jesus Christ. Her story was featured several times on The 700 Club. Click here and here to watch more.
*Original broadcast October 11, 2010.