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Prison proselytism: how your tax dollars pay for fundamentalism behind bars.

A FEW YEARS AGO the state of Iowa decided that the way to rehabilitate prison inmates and prevent them from committing new crimes upon release was to turn them into fundamentalist Christians.

A special wing was established at Newton Correctional Facility and turned over to staffers from Charles W. Colson's Prison Fellowship. The hardcore fundamentalist group began running its "InnerChange Freedom Initiative" (IFI) inside the prison.

As rehabilitation programs go, this one leaves a few things to be desired. Its main goal is to pressure inmates to adopt Colson's brand of far-right, biblical literalism. The theory is that once they've embraced Christ, the inmates will give up their lives of crime.

Iowa corrections officials at first funded the program with money taken from a telephone surcharge tacked onto inmate calls. This required all inmates and their families to pay for the program, whether they wanted to or not. Later, state officials made things worse by siphoning funds away from the state's share of the tobacco settlement. Thanks to that move, all Iowans began paying to subsidize Colson's far-right religious beliefs.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) sued to stop the program, arguing that it was essentially a religious conversion effort operating with public funding.

The evidence AU presented was persuasive to the federal court. In his 140-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Robert W. Pratt observed:
 For all practical purposes, the state has literally
 established an Evangelical Christian congregation
 within the walls of one of its penal institutions,
 giving the leaders of that congregation, i.e., InnerChange
 employees, authority to control the spiritual,
 emotional, and physical lives of hundreds of
 Iowa inmates. There are no adequate safeguards
 present, nor could there be, to ensure that state
 funds are not being directly spent to indoctrinate
 Iowa inmates.


AU attorneys found numerous examples of InnerChange staffers criticizing other religions. Participants were also taught controversial fundamentalist social doctrine. Prison inmates were taught that the Bible ordains males to run the household. One speaker even attacked the theory of evolution.

Since losing the case, Colson and Prison Fellowship President Mark Earley have been trying to re-litigate it through the media. As part of what is obviously a coordinated media strategy, the two have placed opinion columns in newspapers all over the country and in religious publications, assailing Pratt's decision.

The Colson-Early line of attack has two themes: Judge Pratt's decision is biased against evangelical Christianity, and InnerChange works and should thus be retained.

Neither of these assertions stands up to scrutiny. In his decision, Pratt discourses at length on the doctrines of evangelical Christianity. He does this not to disparage the faith but to make the point that this form of Christianity is only one among many. Pratt notes that by endorsing the evangelical perspective and awarding it tax funding, the state of Iowa has run afoul of church-state separation.

As for InnerChange's amazing claims of success, they are illusory. The one study Colson and Earley cited that showed a lower recidivism rate for IFI graduates was quickly debunked. University of California at Los Angeles Professor Mark Kleiman found that the study simply ignored 58 percent of the participants. When those inmates were added back in, Kleiman determined that IFI participants actually returned to prison at a higher rate than non-participants.

Interestingly, during the trial Colson's attorneys never even bothered to argue that their program works--probably because they knew they didn't have the level of proof required by a court of law. Pratt noted this in his decision against Prison Fellowship, stating that, "Aside from anecdotes, defendants offered no definitive study about the actual effects the InnerChange program has on recidivism rates."

No one denies that recidivism is a serious problem in criminal justice. Too many inmates are released from prison only to commit new crimes and end up back behind bars. Over the years many solutions have been proposed to resolve this problem. Turning inmates into fundamentalists on the taxpayer dime is only the latest fad to come down the pike.

The hard truth is that programs which do show promise in helping inmates turn their lives around are very expensive and often don't receive much support from the public. A recent San Francisco Chronicle story examined an Illinois prison rehabilitation program that offers one such example. Rather than focus on where inmates go to church, the approach centers on more practical concerns: It seeks to help inmates overcome addiction problems and equips them with job-training and life-management skills. The program has slashed recidivism rates at Sheridan Correctional Center in half.

Noted journalist James Sterngold, "Illinois is succeeding, many experts say, because it is attacking the roots of addiction, spending far more per inmate and ensuring that when [inmates] leave prison, they are enveloped in an extensive web of support."

The Illinois approach emphasizes a therapeutic model, not a punitive one. Thus, it is vulnerable to attack from hardliners who complain about coddling of prisoners. As prisons have embraced a "get tough" policy in recent years, vocational programs, educational programs, and other approaches that offer at least the possibility of rehabilitation have withered away. Conservative religious groups are offering to fill that void, and some inmates have signed up simply because nothing else is available.

In a separate case, Americans United is challenging a religious program at a county jail in Bradford County, Pennsylvania. Local officials there allowed a fundamentalist group called Firm Foundation to establish a job-training program at the jail, funded with tax money. It is the only one offered. Thus, if inmates want to learn useful job skills that might help them find employment on the outside, they must first be willing to submerge themselves in evangelical Christianity.

This is simply not right. Religious groups have the right to sponsor voluntary programs in prisons with their own money. Corrections officials have no more business steering inmates into such programs than they would ordering inmates to stay away.

It isn't easy to advocate for prison inmates. Most Americans probably believe that felons doing hard time are getting exactly what they deserve. But the reality is, most of these people will be released some day and will once again walk the streets. When that day comes, they are going to need more than a Bible and a collection of evangelical tracts to keep them on the right side of the law.

Rob Boston is assistant director of communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
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Title Annotation:CHURCH AND STATE
Author:Boston, Rob
Publication:The Humanist
Date:Nov 1, 2006
Words:1078
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