Prison Piety No Taxpayer-Funded Evangelism Behind Bars

My first job in Washington, DC, was editing a trade magazine for the men and women who worked in the corrections industry. This was the mid-1980s, and I recall that back then some in the field were absolutely convinced that the best way to rehabilitate prisoners and prevent their return to a life of crime was to turn them on to Jesus.

Budding civil libertarian that I was, this struck me as more than a bit problematic. After all, it’s not the government’s job to sponsor, promote, encourage, or pay for anyone’s religious conversion.

Something else struck me as well: the lack of good data. I used to hear lots of stories from Christian fundamentalists who worked in prisons about inmates who’d supposedly made startling life changes because of religion. The script usually went like this: “Inmate X was a murderer/heroin dealer/bank robber, but now he’s born again and just wants to live straight!”

Warm and fuzzy stories to be sure. But that’s all they were—stories. Where was the hard data proving that religious programs reduced recidivism (the tendency of ex-inmates to commit new offenses after release), helped them get jobs on the outside, and so on?

It just wasn’t there. Nevertheless, heart-tugging stories trumped cold data and soon Christian programs—almost always fundamentalist in character—were taking hold in many states.

These programs grew quickly, in part because they were essentially the only game in town. Let’s face it, most people aren’t interested in volunteering in a prison. But fundamentalist Christians have a history of doing this sort of work. And when they pay for it themselves, few object and many even laud them for it.

The problem is, we’re seeing more and more efforts to make you and me pay for their work. In 2003 Americans United sued the state of Iowa over a program that was running in the Newton Correctional Facility, a low- and medium-security prison in the Iowa Department of Corrections. Known as the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, the program was sponsored by Prison Fellowship, a fundamentalist ministry started by the late Charles W. Colson. (Colson, you might recall, was President Richard M. Nixon’s hatchet man. He went to prison for Watergate-related offenses, embraced fundamentalist Christianity behind bars, and emerged determined to spread the good news to all.)

The Iowa program was being funded by tax dollars—even though it was saturated with fundamentalist perspectives. Americans United also discovered that the inmates taking part in InnerChange had perks that weren’t available to the men in the general prison population. Primarily, they were given first crack at classes that could lead to parole. They also had access to musical instruments, art supplies, computers, and often had private bathrooms and even keys to their cells.

Colson’s outfit trumpeted grandiose claims about the program’s amazing ability to help inmates go straight. Under scrutiny, these claims didn’t hold up, but that didn’t matter. A federal court ruled that the program was clearly religious in nature and didn’t qualify for state support. A federal appeals court later agreed. In May of 2007, Iowa officials discontinued public funding of InnerChange.

That was an important legal win, but it did little to dampen the enthusiasm of the “religion-can-solve-every-problem” crowd. We continue to see efforts to mix church and state in the corrections field. In 2011, for example, officials in Bay Minette, Alabama, announced they would give low-level offenders a choice: go to jail, pay a fine, or agree to attend church services for a year. Bay Minette Police Chief Mike Rowland said fifty-six churches had agreed to take part in the program dubbed “Operation Restore Our Community.” The city dropped the plan after civil libertarians raised concerns.

That same year a drug offender in Ada County, Idaho, was told she could serve time behind bars or attend a program run by the local Rescue Mission. She chose the program but quickly found that its Pentecostal spin conflicted with her beliefs. When she protested, she was sent back to jail.

Last year, a judge in Oklahoma came under criticism after it was reported that he had sentenced a teenager to attend church services for ten years. The teen, Tyler Alred, was arrested after a traffic accident that claimed the life of his sixteen-year-old friend. (Alred had been drinking at the time.)

Judge Mike Norman gave Alred a deferred sentence—provided that he attend church services weekly for the next ten years. It soon came to light that this wasn’t the first time that judge had given offenders a choice between jail or Jesus. He defended his actions, insisting they were appropriate.

Encouragingly, there was considerable outcry over Norman’s decision, and some people called for legal action. But Alred was the only person with the legal right to challenge the sentence. He declined. That’s not surprising since he probably didn’t want to run the risk of going to prison. The American Civil Liberties Union did weigh in on the matter, however, and asked a state judicial oversight body to crack down on Norman.

These “piety in prison” schemes not only amount to government favoritism of religion, they leave nonbelievers on the outs. Most people are quite eager to avoid incarceration, which makes the “jail or Jesus” choice really no choice at all. In the end, it’s just another form of state-mandated religious coercion.

Those who truly value their faith should also be wary of such arrangements because they can easily lead to a rash of false piety. I recall receiving a phone call years ago from a man who was fresh off a stint in a state prison for a white-collar crime. Rather than take his chances in the general population, he pretended to be born again and won a spot in a Christian program where, due to the extra attention and activities, doing time was a lot less painful. I suspect he’s not the only one to pull that stunt.

The deeper issue here is the harsh reality that U.S. prisons are places of punishment, not rehabilitation. Too many people in the legal and correctional systems are looking for ways to do rehabilitation on the cheap by turning it over to fundamentalist groups who promise to solve a complex problem by converting convicts. It’s a naïve and unrealistic solution. Of course religious groups should have the right to visit prisoners and offer them support—just as secular groups should be given access to atheists behind bars. But all of this has to be done with private dollars.

A government-backed, taxpayer-supported ministry that works to pressure people to adopt fundamentalist Christianity wouldn’t be acceptable in the free world. It shouldn’t be behind bars, either.