GEORGETOWN, Del., April 21 (AP)--Russell Epps takes in the knotty-pine ceiling of the prison chapel and the other inmates on the padded chairs listening to a Bible lecture.

For him, this is home.

``It's like a family in here for me, with the others and with Christ. It's like a family relationship,'' said the 39-year-old convicted burglar. Four years from the time he found his faith behind bars, he is still three years from freedom.

Epps leads the inmate choir at the Sussex Correctional Institute, a compound of cinderblock buildings and razor wire in southern Delaware.

In this prison on Easter Sunday, a coalition of evangelists and prison ministries - including Chuck Colson, the Watergate figure-turned-minister, and Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham - will launch Operation Starting Line, an ambitious campaign to establish Christian programs in 1,800 prisons holding 2 million inmates across the United States.

Colson, Graham and others will spend Easter praying and talking with inmates like Epps. Meanwhile, motivational speakers and singers will hold a revival on a stage to be erected in the exercise yard.

From here, the revival will go to other Delaware prisons and, later this year, to state and federal prisons in Michigan, New York, Missouri, Virginia and Florida. All 50 states will be reached during the next five years, said Colson, who served seven months in prison for Watergate-related crimes. After that, he founded Prison Fellowship Ministries, a nonprofit company that offers Bible studies and counseling and is a model for Operation Starting Line.

The idea, Colson says: to prepare inmates for life outside prison by preaching religion and counseling them about life and job skills. A key part of the effort is a mentoring plan that puts ex-convicts in touch with someone in a local church for guidance.

The program will rely mostly on volunteers to remain after the revival has moved on.

``The one thing I know from working 25 years in prisons,'' Colson said, ``is that rehabilitation programs don't work.''

Whether Operation Starting Line's ambitious effort will work is another question.

Todd Clear, who teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, studied 380 convicts released from 20 prisons around the country. After interviewing them in 1990-91 and again in 1997-98, he found that religious faith made little difference in whether an ex-convict ended up back in prison.

``There are a handful of studies out there, and they do not make a strong case that religious programming makes the community safer by saving souls,'' Clear said. But he said religion still has significance in prison.

``It's an important part of what needs to be available to men and women who are locked up,'' he said. ``Prison is an assault on identity, but religion can help people retain their identity. But it can't be oversold, either.''

Colson said prison is dehumanizing.

``I saw people whose lives were without value,'' he said, ``and I got them into Bible studies and saw how the Gospel changed them.''

Epps grew up with an alcoholic mother and a drug-addicted father. His grandmother took him to church every Sunday, but he says he didn't understand what church had to offer. ``To me it was a ritual, something I was obligated to do,'' he said.

When he entered prison in 1996, Epps said he was approached by another inmate who had been ``saved.'' Epps thought about his life, about how close he had come to being killed or killing someone. He embraced Christianity and believes it will help him stay out of prison when he leaves.

``I've got something now that will help me overcome that temptation to do wrong,'' he said.

There are inmates who had religion before they were convicted, men like Reginald Clark, serving a 31-month sentence for violating his probation for assault and other convictions.

Clark, 37, found God during his first prison stint. After he was released, he says, he walked away from the tenets of Christianity - notably leading a life free of drugs, alcohol abuse and loose sex.

``I know from my own experience how hard it is to give these things up, but they mean nothing but trouble,'' Clark said.

``And I see the other brothers trying to make the choice,'' he said. ``They want to be saved, but then they sit back and think about it because it means they have to give up their girlfriend because they're not married, drugs, alcohol. And they are thinking, 'What will my friends say?'''

Finally, Colson said, there are those who will leave prison with a new or renewed faith only to break the law again.

``People who are Christians aren't perfect,'' he said. ``Christians sin like everybody else But hopefully, if you're serious with your faith, you won't be getting in trouble as much.''

Copyright 2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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