A captive audience for salvation

A for-profit prison company stirs hope - and church-state issues - pursuing partnerships with Evangelical Christian ministries.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

America has the highest incarceration level in the world, and its prisons serve too consistently as revolving doors. Are faith-based programs in prisons the answer to these disturbing trends?

The largest private company running prisons and jails in the United States, Corrections Corporation of America, thinks so. CCA has embarked on a major initiative to expand such programs in all 63 facilities it operates under contract with local, state, and federal governments.

"These programs give inmates hope and prepare them to be different people," says John Lanz, CCA's director of industry and special programs.

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While the ambitious approach wins kudos from some inmates, other people question its constitutionality.

Though not directly supported by President Bush's faith-based initiative, CCA's program poses the same questions about how to encourage positive change in people's lives without privileging one form of religion with taxpayer dollars. Some also see potential political ramifications.

CCA provides for a variety of religious services in each facility, as required by law. But in addition, it has formed partnerships with eight national Evangelical Christian ministries under which CCA provides annual financial contributions and sets up franchise-style operations within facilities.

"We had chaplains and religious services, but I saw we didn't take full advantage of resources these national ministries provided, and they were having [legal] difficulties in state and federal facilities," says Mr. Lanz. "As a private company, we could knock down the barriers."

Critics say those barriers shouldn't come down. Religious programming per se - which can benefit both prisoners and the prison environment - is not at issue, but showing preference for a particular religion is. The partnerships do that, they suggest, especially when they include residential "pods" where one faith message structures the living situation, and benefits are available that others don't get.

In a case unrelated to CCA, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State has challenged in court the Inner Change program run in an Iowa prison by Charles Colson's Prison Fellowship. Results of that trial are due any day.

CCA says funding groups using company profits makes it legal, but others argue that since CCA acts for the government in running facilities, it cannot support a particular religious message.

"In the corrections context, CCA would be treated as if it is a 'state actor,' " says Robert Tuttle, a law professor at George Washington University and an expert on faith-based program issues.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation of Madison, Wis., and its New Mexico members recently filed a federal lawsuit against the state and CCA over programming at the women's prison in Grants, N.M. FFRF says the Life Principles program in the "faith pod" there is fundamentalist Christian and teaches the women submission to male authority.

"This is a flagrant endorsement of religion," says Annie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. "We consider this a nationally significant lawsuit because they are the major private provider of prison services ... and have openly said they want to franchise this."

The company contends it's on safe ground because programs are voluntary and inmates don't have to convert; it developed a checklist for detention facilities to follow, which it says will ensure they are meeting First Amendment requirements.

Ms. Gaylor disagrees: "They are being told that the only way they can be rehabilitated is through Jesus Christ, so it's a mind game even if they say you don't have to convert."

Volunteering in prison is a complicated question, Professor Tuttle says. Do some make choices they think officials or parole boards favor?

Studies don't support program effectiveness

Along with issues of taxpayer funding of a religious message, there are questions of religious programs' efficacy in prison. Todd Clear, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, has conducted several evaluations. He says that empirical data have not shown a positive impact that can be traced to the programs themselves.

The studies show "fairly substantial differences in postrelease success of those involved and those not," he says, "but the differences disappear when you statistically control for the characteristics and background of the people."

Yet encouraged by Bush's faith-based initiative and by staff and inmate interest, CCA says that along with the vocational, educational, and antiaddiction programs offered, faith-based programs are crucial.

"While all programs are important, our company - and, hopefully, our nation - has recognized that changing the hearts of people leads to larger change of attitudes and behavior," says Dennis Bradby, CCA's vice president for inmate programs.

At the Metro-Davidson detention facility in Nashville, Tenn., inmates can apply to live in separate residential communities some have dubbed "God pods," where life is highly structured.

Chaplain Dennis Smith coordinates one faith pod in which 41 inmates study two programs: Life Principles - a character-building curriculum based on fundamentalist biblical teachings developed by the Institute for Life Principles, in Oak Brook, Ill., (a group controversial even among evangelicals); and the Bible study course of School for Christ International, of Beaumont, Texas. Local volunteer teachers receive training by national ministries, which provide the materials.

At a pod session during a recent visit, inmates listen to a televangelist-style message on DVD by the ministry leader, focused on religious doctrine, and then volunteer Ray Vick leads a discussion.

"The fact that I'm saved means I'm special to the Lord. Do you consider yourself a miracle?" Mr. Vick asks. "If it wasn't for Jesus, we couldn't be saved and become a new creation."

One inmate raises the importance of forgiveness, and Vick talks about his experience of forgiving an absent father. In his second term at the jail, David Elmore signed up for the pod and considers it one of his best decisions.

"The programs teach me that God is the head of my life whether I want Him to be or not, and if I yield to that, my life will be better - and I'm seeing that," he says in an interview. "We do anger resolution, the commands of Christ, and 170 lessons with DVDs and a text on what's expected of you as a Christian."

Mr. Elmore, who worked for a concrete company, says he played hard and did what he wanted, including alcohol and drugs. A divorced father who left home when his daughter was 4, he has also signed up with another of the ministries - Child Evangelism Fellowship - which encourages inmates to communicate with their children around Bible lessons.

"My daughter always wanted to know why I wasn't there," Elmore says. "She's 18, and this helps us build a relationship based on who we are now rather than on past mistakes."

Harold Harris, also a repeat offender, says, "Once you get into the program it will grab you. Doing time is hard.... This is the best place to be in the facility because there's more peace."

The other faith pod of 100 inmates is staffed directly by Men of Valor, a Nashville ministry founded by a former prisoner. It is committed to "winning men in prison to Jesus Christ and discipling them" so they can "reenter society as men of integrity." The staff of five shepherds the men through a 12-month curriculum, including goal setting and one-on-one mentoring by volunteers. The mentoring will continue for a year after the inmates' release, and includes support from a local church.

During the morning, the men spend time in group sessions on topics like marriage and family, financial management, and Christian qualities of manhood; an afternoon community meeting is for discussing issues and worship. Today, it's a rousing, high-energy event, with a cappella praise songs, clapping, and rap music with Christian lyrics written last night by "the Prayer Squad": "This is the new life/ set back wait I got something to tell/ remember my old life/ high speeding on my way to hell...."

Eugene Gregory used to write a different kind of rap music, but says "since I got in the program, it don't feel right" anymore. This is his fifth time in jail. He's only 25 and has five kids. Raised in a strict, churchgoing family, he got caught up in adventure, drugs, and the "Wild Boys" gang.

"I've learned something new every day - it's exciting," he says. Even if allowed out after a coming court date, he'd prefer "to leave a new man. I want to inspire somebody to wonder what happened to me."

Does it institutionalize Evangelical view?

Several in the pod say what's affected them most is the Bible study. "I used to read the Bible like any book, but they taught us to read one verse maybe a hundred times until you get the meaning," says Rodney Collier. "Now I know how to go to God."

Residential faith-based pods in prisons are a growing phenomenon in states, though controversial. Dr. Clear says Colson's Prison Fellowship (PF) has reorganized its programs to focus on reentry into the community.

In addition to the eight Evangelical ministries already under agreement, CCA has just signed with PF for a reentry program in Indiana. It's also developing a partnership with megachurch pastor Rick Warren's prison ministry.

Overall, "we're about 40-50 percent there in implementing these programs," Lanz says.

The all-out emphasis on Evangelical groups, including some fundamentalist ones, appears to involve deals with preferred religious groups for any structured programs beyond simple church services, raising questions about the choice inmates have. Some county jails are taking similar steps.

"This is now a systematic attempt by folks on the prison and Evangelical side to move this vision of evangelical transformation as a core part of what it means to prepare prisoners for reentry," Tuttle says.

Dr. Clear is also skeptical. "The potential downsides of a partisan, Evangelical alliance with a profit-making prison industry are alarming," he says.

Yet he is strongly in favor of religious programming that offers real choice and is widely available. Prisoners are positive about programs because they ameliorate the strains of being locked up, he says.

The challenge for those in the corrections business is to find the right constitutional mix of programs that allow prisoners free religious expression and a choice of opportunities for rehabilitation.

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