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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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."Skip to next paragraph
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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."
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.