NEW YORK — By 17, Micheal Nicastor was in prison for committing a number of robberies with a sawed-off shotgun. He escaped twice and in the second break killed a man during a robbery. That got him life. "I was the kind of guy who is everybody's nightmare," he says.
After 10 years in a cell at Alabama's toughest prison, Mr. Nicastor one day got a "glimmer" that life might offer something other than selfishness, anger, and aggression.
That prompted him to borrow a book from a fellow inmate. "We're All Doing Time" laid out basic spiritual tenets found in most religions - simplicity, selfless service, and practice. Nicastor decided to take its advice and turn his jail cell into a monk's cell.
"God just really began to put in my soul a deep desire to do service and give back because I took so much," he says with a gentle Southern drawl.
While controversy swirls around the expansion of government funding for faith-based programs, church and state have always coexisted cordially in at least one venue - the nation's prisons.
Almost since the days of pillories, chaplains have been a part of prison life. In the past two decades, the presence of clergy and counselors behind bars has only increased as Islamic and Christian fundamentalist groups have started programs.
Today, with the cutback in education and other initiatives designed to help prisoners, along with tougher strictures on parole, some experts see the growing spirituality-behind-bars movement as one of the few avenues left for rehabilitation in the nation's overcrowded prison system.
"It's the most significant factor in prison today, a community that helps you realize you're not marked as a criminal for the rest of your life, but that you're a human being - acceptable for who you are and not for what you've done," says the Rev. Bill Webber, a professor of urban ministry at New York Theological Seminary.
Statistics on the role of faith
Surprisingly, relatively little academic research has been done on the relationship between "religiosity" and "criminality." But what does exist indicates that the deeper the commitment and involvement with a spiritual or religious community, the less likely people are to break prison rules, get into fights, or return to crime once they're released.
"It's the involvement in a community and regular interaction with other religious believers that was the most predictive of lower rates of criminality - the practice of religion, not just a individual's professed beliefs about God ... or hellfire and damnation," says David Evans, criminal-justice professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.
That's one of the things that prompted Texas officials, in conjunction with the evangelical Prison Fellowship Ministries, to open up the country's first privately funded faith-based prison in 1997. Called the Inner Change Freedom Initiative, it offers 24-hour-a-day spiritual support, training, and classes with other inmates who choose to serve a faith-based sentence. It had the support of then-Gov. George W. Bush. And its anecdotal success prompted officials in Iowa and Kansas to follow suit.
While the Texas program is privately funded, the state does provide the building and basic amenities like food and clothing. The Kansas and Iowa programs get state funds for nonreligious aspects, like drug and alcohol treatment and vocational training. Still, critics say because the programs are fundamentally evangelical, they violate the constitutional separation of church and state.
Because the Inner Change programs are still so new, researchers can't effectively judge their success. So they turned to Brazil, where a faith-based prison has been operating for more than 25 years.
Prof. Byron Johnson of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., found that only 16 percent of former inmates from the faith-based prison returned to crime, compared with 36 percent of former inmates from a specialized vocational program that was also voluntary. Recidivism rates in both the US and Brazil are estimated at between 40 and 70 percent in the general prison population, depending on the amount of time a former inmate has been released from jail.
Those numbers gave the people at Prison Fellowship Ministries confidence they were on the right track. "To us, crime is not a societal problem, it's a individual personal problem, and the way you reform people is by having them change one at a time," says Terry White of Prison Fellowship Ministries.
There's no question Micheal Nicastor feels like new. Soon after he started mediating, praying, and trying to reach out and help other inmates, he also began corresponding with Bo Lozoff, the author of the book that changed his life.
In 1974, Mr. Lozoff's brother-in-law was sent to prison for 12 to 40 years on a marijuana conviction. At the same time, Lozoff and his wife had voluntarily joined an ashram to learn spiritual discipline.
"When we visited him in prison, we saw that a lot of the conditions we chose voluntarily were similar to the conditions of his life that he'd give anything to escape from," says Lozoff.
Demand for 'We're All Doing Time'
That prompted the couple to start the Prison Ashram Project, now the largest interfaith prison organization in the country. So far, more than a quarter of a million copies of "We're All Doing Time" has been sent to prisoners for free, and the demand grows steadily every year.
"The idea was nothing ever evangelistic, but a service to provide encouragement, friendship, resources, and materials for prisoners who really wanted to explore their time as if they were like nuns and monks, really doing spiritual practice," says Lozoff.
After spending 13 more years in prison after his first spiritual glimmer, Nicastor won parole, something he once believed was impossible. He now lives in North Carolina in a community started by Lozoff that is dedicated wholly to helping prisoners.
"My life really seems to be working out well, and I'm grateful. I'm blessed," he says. "But there are many people who are much deeper spiritual lights who are still in prison. But they also know the spiritual path is not about things working out well, it's about the way you live your life."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor