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Faith-based changes come from inside a Texas prison: Programs reduce recidivism.

When Jack Cowley ran prisons as a warden in Oklahoma, he wasn't in the habit of giving his inmates hugs. In fact, such personal contact was strictly forbidden. But when he was hired to run the InnerChange Freedom Initiative at the Carol Vance unit of the Texas prison system near Houston, the rules changed dramatically.

"A staff person is trained not to even touch a prisoner except in the case of a riot or a forced extraction," Cowley said. "Here, people are hugging inmates, and that's very tough for a traditional corrections officer to get used to."

Counselors from InnerChange, an offshoot of former White House aide and Watergate figure Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship Ministries, are also bringing religion to the inmates, specifically Christianity, and talking about brotherly love.

While there's nothing new about ministering to inmates, Texas was the first state to provide funds -- $1.5 million this year -- for a program it saw as a way to reduce recidivism. President Bush, who as governor made Texas the bellwether in faith-based initiatives, has praised the prison program as an example of how religious charities can improve lives where government services often fail. In 1997, Texas became the first state to use the faith-based effort that has now taken root in Iowa and Kansas.

"From the state's point of view, the mission is to reduce recidivism," said Cowley, national director of operations for the Tulsa, Okla-based non-profit. "From a ministry point of view, our mission is to save souls for Christ."

With state funding, InnerChange will be the only program of its kind in the Vance unit. Doesn't that violate the separation of church and state?

"The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) has looked into it and has been quoted as saying more programs like this are needed in the system," Cowley said. "Their only issue is that there may be denominational issues, such as there may be a Muslim who wants services but there are no Muslim providers."

Although Cowley said the program's degree of success will not be known until 2003, he believes InnerChange has already reduced recidivism at the Vance unit from a previous 44 percent to 10 percent today.

After 27 years of experience working in prisons, Cowley says he is amazed at how effective religion and the InnerChange program can be in changing attitudes of inmates. "It's really exciting to see wardens come into the program and say, 'My God, I never thought that was possible'" Cowley said.

One inmate actually turned down parole so that he could complete the 18-month program, Cowley said. While InnerChange's post-release mentoring program aids add an extra level of supervision during parole, the program violates previous parole practices by requiring that former inmates get together for continuing religious fellowship.

While criticism of the program has remained fairly muted, Washington, D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State sees InnerChange as another example of tax-funded religion under the Bush administration.

"Any program that relies on or requires a conversion to a particular religion is going to be a poor candidate for public funding in our view," said Rob Boston, spokesman for Americans United. "We're not saying that they do not do good work, but they ought to do it with their own funding."

Other faith-based initiatives are taking more direct hits in Texas, particularly from the Texas Freedom Network (TFN), an organization founded in 1995 by Cecile Richards, daughter of former Gov. Ann Richards. Bush defeated incumbent Ann Richards to become governor in 1994.

TFN, a statewide, nonprofit, nonpartisan alliance that includes 7,500 religious and community leaders, is challenging what it calls "the growing social and political influence of religious political extremists."

Samantha Smoot, executive director of TFN, calls the faith-based effort in Texas "a lose-lose-lose deal."

Taxpayers lose, she believes, "because they are forced to financially support religious activity, and they get virtually no accountability for how the money is spent," she said. "Churches lose, because the government strings that come with government funds threaten their independence. Poor people lose because they may be compelled to practice a faith not their own in order to receive services, and because Bush has exempted many of these programs from basic health and safety practices."

One TFN victory over the Bush agenda came last spring when the Texas legislature decided not to renew the state's Alternative Accreditation program for faith-based childcare facilities, a measure Bush had promoted as governor. The chief beneficiary of the state's relaxed regulation of faith-based child care facilities was the Roloff Homes, a Corpus Christi facility founded by the late fundamentalist minister' Lester Roloff. After defying state regulators amid reports of child abuse at, the facilities, Roloff moved the operation to Missouri after the Supreme Court upheld the state's right to regulate the homes.

In 1997, the Texas legislature passed a bill allowing religious child care facilities to be accredited by a private sector regulator the Texas Association of Christian Child Care Agencies (TACCCA). The Roloff Homes were the first of eight faith-based child-care facilities accredited by TACCCA.

Despite continued complaints of abuse and neglect, TACCCA re-accredited the Roloff Homes in April 2000, the TFN reported. With the elimination of TACCCA, state regulators will again have authority over the homes.

Other programs cited by civil libertarians as flawed uses of state funds include a church-based drug rehabilitation program that argued that drug addiction is not a disease but a sin, with prayer and Bible reading as treatment.

In one of the first constitutional challenges to a charitable choice contract, the American Jewish Congress and the Texas Civil Rights Project filed a lawsuit in 2000 to invalidate a contract between the Texas Department of Human Services and the Jobs Partnership of Washington County (JPWC).The suit claimed that "Protestant evangelical Christianity permeates" the partnership's job training and placement program.

The complaint charged that JPWC uses tax dollars to convince students of the need to "change from the inside out, rather than from the outside in, and that can only be accomplished through a relationship with Jesus Christ."

At the InnerChange prison program, Cowley said he is sensitive to fears that the state's social services and funding might be taken over by the religious right. "I guess there's some civil libertarian in all of us. There's a fear that the state's going to support a religion," he said.

"But the potential behind the initiative isn't so much the money. The grandest thing about the initiative is that suddenly the government is giving people permission to get involved," said Cowley. "It's giving the church, the synagogue, the mosque, a way to get involved."

Richard Williamson is a reporter for the Denver News Bureau.
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Author:Williamson, Richard
Publication:The Non-profit Times
Geographic Code:1U7TX
Date:Feb 1, 2002
Words:1116
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