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A captive audience for salvation

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

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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."

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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."