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A critique of faith-based prison programs.

"Faith-based prisons" are the latest fad in a significant number of states' criminal justice systems, and their growth is an egregious threat to the constitutional democracy that George W. Bush, upon ascending to the U.S. presidency, swore to defend and protect. These programs are supported by state revenue distributed directly or indirectly to sectarian religious organizations for the ostensible goals of rehabilitation and reduction of recidivism. And Bush's commitment to such a theologically driven and pessimistic view of the impotency of government to cure our nation's social ills is allowing the continuation of enormous harm to the public interest.

During his tenure as Texas governor, Bush spawned the "faith-based agenda"--his plan to cure the United States' social ills through the ministries of religious organizations. It started in 1996 when he appointed a sixteen-member Governor's Advisory Task Force on Faith-based Community Service Groups. The product of this group was a report called Faith in Action: A New Vision for Church-State Cooperation in Texas. The following year Bush used this document to justify establishing "The Inner Change Freedom Initiative" program in the Carol Vance prison unit, a male facility of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

This program was the brainchild of Chuck Colson, the Watergate convict-cum-evangelical Christian and founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries. A concise statement of the substance of this program in the February 2003 evaluation report of the Texas Criminal Justice Policy Council states:
 The program was designed to facilitate
 the life transformation of the member
 eliminating the thinking process which
 resulted in his incarceration and to
 rebuild the member's value system,
 establishing a solid foundation for productive
 growth.... a three phase program
 involving prisoners in 16 to 24
 months of in-prison biblical programming
 and 6-12 months of aftercare while
 on parole. The different program phases
 focus on biblical education, life skills,
 community service, leadership and personal
 faith.


The report further reveals that the initial project involved approximately two hundred beds in a separate wing of the Vance Unit. No sex offenders, murderers, or inmates convicted of aggravated assault were allowed to volunteer for the program. The outcome of this highly restrictive list of eligibility criteria was that the participants were basically medium- to low-risk drug offenders. In April 1997 the initial group of 141 volunteers "hand selected" by administrators of Colson's organization entered the program.

Financial backing for the program reportedly came largely from Colson's Prison Fellowship Ministries, a not-for-profit organization that provided "funding to cover the salaries and benefits of program staff, the costs of Bible-based instructional and educational materials, and staff and volunteer training, materials and expenses." The Texas Department of Criminal Justice covered "security and day-to-day operating costs of the Vance Unit, including inmate support costs such as food, medical services and clothing."

Impressed by the apparent number of successful "graduates" who were released into the community and didn't recidivate, in 2001 the Seventy-seventh Texas Legislature, without a request from Colson, appropriated $1.5 million to expand the program. That not a single penny of this money was actually used can probably be attributed to Article 1, Section 7, of the Texas Constitution concerning Appropriations for Sectarian Purposes, which states: "No money shall be appropriated or drawn from the Treasury for the benefit of any sect, or religious society, theological or religious seminary; nor shall property belonging to the State be appropriated for any such purposes," In 2003 the Seventy-eighth Texas Legislature was obliged to make deep cuts in the state's budget and the $1.5 million was deleted.

Critics correctly note that participants in Colson's program aren't given the option to refuse to profess a commitment to an agenda that is inherently religious. The website of Colson's organization explicitly states that the entire menu of social services touted as "non-sectarian" activities crucial for successful reintegration are offered to inmates "willing to participate in a Christ-centered biblically-based program." This is equivalent to a coerced nonchoice between salvation and damnation and hypocrisy by some inmates who perceive it as a one-way ticket to early release and freedom.

The theological doctrine of paramount importance to Colson--and certainly to all evangelical Christian groups with similar programs--is that criminal conduct is a manifestation of a person's sinful nature and the only cure comes from the miraculous power of God's grace and love. The guts of this widely shared belief is that all secular programs designed to rehabilitate in a therapeutic model of creating and restoring human relationships are doomed to failure. This belief is embraced by Bush and is the key to understanding his belief in the near total ineptitude of governmental policies and programs created to improve the lives of citizens.

The spread of faith-based prisons is due primarily to the influence of Bush and his ideological twin brother, Jeb (governor of Florida). In 2003 Jeb Bush proudly dedicated the first faith-based prison in the United States: a 750-bed medium security facility for males in Lawtey, Florida. Like his brother in the White House, he claims that the only way to achieve real rehabilitation of criminals and reduce recidivism is to "lead them to God." Florida advocates of this program claim that the prison consists entirely of 700 to 750 male inmates with a professed desire to be rehabilitated who are being voluntarily led to achieve this goal by committing their lives to a god of their choosing through Islam, Judaism, or Christianity. In April 2004 Florida opened its second faith-based prison for more than 300 female inmates in the Hillsborough unit in Riverview.

The eligibility criteria for acceptance into both of these faith-based prisons contain an inherent programmatic contradiction that isn't mentioned, is dismissed as superfluous, or isn't perceived by its advocates. Participants aren't required to profess belief in any god, aren't required to attend any religious courses, but they must articulate a commitment to believing they can be changed. Admitting that a person can be a successful graduate without a belief in a god or attending any religious services deals a death-blow to any form of argument that morality is inseparably linked to religion and that a religious "conversion" is necessary to produce a permanent change in the thinking and conduct of any person.

Texas and Florida are the leading wagons in the train of faith-based programs for prison inmates. Other wagons include Georgia, Iowa, Tennessee, Minnesota, Kansas, Maryland, California, and Ohio. And, not surprisingly, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA)--the United States' largest owner and operator of private prisons, based in Nashville, Tennessee, and motivated by the smell of fresh state and federal dollars--has joined forces with the Chicago-based Institute in Basic Life Principles, a Christian evangelical organization committed to the view that only Jesus Christ, the son of God, can change lives.

Bill Berkowitz, in his September 4, 2004, WorkingForChange column, "Prisons, Profits, and Prophets," writes that the short-term goal of this partnership is to enroll up to 1,000 inmates in CCA prisons. Earlier in April 2003 the CCA entered into a "full-scale partnership" with a Dallas-based evangelical Christian group called Champions for Life. The goal of that alignment was to, within three years, have in place "religious-oriented prison programs" in all of CCA's sixty-four facilities, containing more than 60,000 inmates. But these partnerships are nothing but sick jokes. The CCA has been plagued by a history of lawsuits, including accusations of prisoner abuse, and is accountable only to stockholders, not the public interest.

Historically considered, the first faith-based programs for prison inmates were in Louisiana. In 1995 the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary officially launched a course of studies culminating in undergraduate degrees for inmates in the infamous prison in Angola, Louisiana. The credit for initiating this program belongs to Burl Cain, a devout Southern Baptist and the warden of the Angola prison. The story of Cain's campaign to spiritually transform one of the nation's toughest prisons from which very few prisoners will ever leave is a powerful and persuasive argument for prison inmates to engage in religious studies. Supposedly, the seminary and private donations cover the majority of expenses for this biblically oriented program, which, according to Cain, has made Angola "more peaceful than New Orleans," so "god reigns at Angola." The fact remains, however, as acknowledged by Cain, that a significant number of tax dollars are used to support this Southern Baptist version of evangelical Christianity.

The combined efforts of these religious groups can be credited with leading a relatively large number of inmates to life-changing transformations and productive lives. Anyone, therefore, who voices opposition to the distribution of state and federal revenue to religious organizations providing spiritual guidance capable of transforming the lives of thousands of hardened criminals is going to be portrayed as an opponent of motherhood and apple pie. And the totally pragmatic justification of programs that achieve positive results is persuasive.

But the president emphatically denies it is the responsibility of the government to provide all inmates in our nations' prisons the same kind of social services that are essential components of all effective faith-based programs. On February 10, 2003, in a speech at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee, promoting his faith-based initiative, George W. Bush declared:
 We've arrested and we convict criminals;
 yet building more prisons will not substitute
 for responsibility and order in our
 souls. The role of government is limited
 because government cannot put hope in
 people's hearts or a sense of purpose in
 people's lives. That happens when someone
 puts an arm around a neighbor and
 says, "God loves you, I love you, and you
 can count on us both."


These comments are a loud and clear commitment to the beliefs that governmental policies and programs can't and shouldn't attempt to promote virtuous conduct in the lives of citizens.

In response to anyone who criticizes his religious crusade with the suggestion that he is blurring, if not potentially destroying, church-state separation, the president replies in a cavalier style and invokes a totally specious distinction in support of his position. In an interview with Christianity Today, during which the paramount issue of church-state separation was raised, Bush confidently stated:
 We're funding people and programs, not
 institutions. Some of my opponents
 worry about proselytization. I believe the
 power of the church is the capacity to
 change the heart, and we should not
 force the church to change its mission.


The entire "faith-based initiative" of the Bush administration is mired in a constitutional minefield with numerous lawsuits filed by organizations alleging the violation of church-state separation. Some prominent religious leaders are claiming that the government is using all religions in this country as a dumping ground for the nation's social ills. The government, they say, has abandoned its responsibility by using the scent-laden lures of state and federal grants for nonprofit charitable organizations to create and provide a myriad of social services. The irony of this situation is the frequently heard complaint that bureaucratic red tape designed to protect the line between church and state is preventing religious organizations from fulfilling their mission. And it is certainly important to note that some religious leaders of the Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish faiths have gone on record with statements that the president's entire faith-based action plan violates the separation of church and state.

Most, if not all organizations with faith-based programs for prison inmates release reports claiming to scientifically demonstrate a high success rate of participants and a significant reduction of recidivism. Again, while not doubting that many lives are permanently redirected in a positive direction, the temptation to "cook the books" to achieve the desired results and engage in "casuistry" is too strong for some to resist. Colson's Prison Fellowship Ministries is probably the most prominent example of resorting to what Mark A. R. Kleiman characterizes as:
 one of the oldest tricks on the books, one
 almost guaranteed to make a success of
 any program: counting the winners and
 ignoring the losers. The technical form
 for this in statistics is "selection bias";
 program managers know it as "creaming."


In his August 5, 2003, Slate article, "Faith-Based Fudging," Kleiman comments on 75 of 177 volunteer inmates who graduated from Colson's program at the Vance prison unit in Texas:
 Graduation involved sticking with the
 program, not only in prison but after
 release. No one counted as a graduate,
 for example, unless he got a job. Naturally,
 the graduates did better than the
 control group. Anything that selects out
 from a group of ex-inmates who hold
 jobs is going to look like a miracle cure,
 because getting a job is among the very
 best predictors of staying out of trouble.
 And inmates who stick with a demanding
 program of self-improvement
 through 16 months probably have more
 inner resources, and a stronger determination
 to turn their lives around, than
 the average inmate.

 The InnerChange cheerleaders simply
 ignored the other 102 participants who
 dropped out, were kicked out, or got
 early parole and didn't finish. Naturally,
 the non-graduates did worse than the
 control group. If you select out the winners,
 you leave mostly losers.


Kleiman's final judgment is that "probably no one was actually lying; they were just believing, and repeating as a fact, what they wanted to believe." But perhaps Colson's loyal troops, like the Catholic Jesuits in the seventeenth century, used some complex reasoning (casuistry) to justify moral laxity.

Another flagrant example of this kind of reasoning is found in the earlier cited evaluation report on Colson's program written by the staff of the Texas Criminal Justice Policy Council and approved by its director, Tony Fabelo. In his "Note from the Director," Fabelo claims that, because the $1.5 million appropriated by the Texas legislature for the expansion of this program wasn't used, it
 has operated at no cost to the taxpayer.
 ... Even if early outcome results in terms
 of reduction in recidivism are not dramatically
 better than some programs
 operated by the state, improvements in
 the Inner Freedom Initiative program
 may result in better outcomes in the
 future and those outcomes will have
 been achieved at no cost to the taxpayer.


Collectively considered, all of the states with faith-based programs for prison inmates are spending millions of tax dollars in direct or indirect payment for religious-oriented programs to salvage the lives of a select few while doing little to change the lives of the vast majority of inmates--most of whom will eventually be released with or without some form of supervision. The remedy for this blatantly unfair and unconstitutional expenditure of state revenue is, first, to abolish it and, second, to develop a new and more inclusive agenda for changing lives and reducing recidivism.

I have no reason to doubt or criticize the fact that President George W. Bush is a born-again Christian whose less than exemplary life was transformed by his conversion to some religious beliefs. Although I don't agree with those who argue that he is a malicious bigot and hypocrite cloaked in the guise of a compassionate evangelical Christian, I am unconditionally persuaded that he is sincerely and profoundly wrong in his advocacy of the "faith-based agenda" spawned during his tenure as governor of Texas. I believe that his presidential plan to cure the nation's social ills through the ministries of religious organizations is an insidious threat to the constitutional separation of church and state. All faith-based programs for prison inmates to which state revenue is distributed either directly or indirectly through sectarian religious organizations are an egregious constitutional violation.

Dr. Lawrence Thomas Jablecki received a Ph.D. in political philosophy from Manchester University in Manchester, England. He teaches philosophy at Rice University in Houston, Texas, and has taught philosophy to hundreds of Texas prison inmates. He was also director of the Brazoria County Community Supervision and Corrections Department in Angleton, Texas, for eighteen years. His writings have appeared previously in the Humanist.
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Author:Jablecki, Lawrence T.
Publication:The Humanist
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2005
Words:2632
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