Jan. 6, 2010


More than seven million Americans are currently under some type of supervision from correctional systems – either incarcerated in a prison or jail or under probation or parole.

Experts in criminal justice express great frustration with this figure; proportionally, it's much higher than other Western nations. One reason it's so high is recidivism. Nearly 70 percent of prison inmates who are released are re-arrested within three years; more than half end up back in prison. If we could break the cycle of recidivism, that alone would greatly reduce the prison population.

But recidivism has proved to be a tough nut to crack. Many factors contribute to a former inmate's decision to return to a life of crime – lack of family support, inability to get a job and so on.

A few years ago, some conservative Christians decided they had found the answer– "Christian" prisons. If inmates were converted to strict biblical fundamentalism, they would surely reform and live straight on the outside.

It should be made clear that by "Christian" these advocates mean "fundamentalist." The type of Christianity espoused in these programs is grounded in biblical literalism. These are not generically religious or non-sectarian programs; they are anchored in a certain type of theologically conservative Christianity – the kind espoused by right-wing evangelicals and fundamentalists.

It's difficult to say how many programs like this operate in U.S. jails and prisons. Jails especially are often run at the county level. Because of this decentralization, it's often hard to keep tabs on every religious program operating in institutions. Many may not garner national attention.

State prisons are a different matter. Attempts to establish "faith-based" programs in state institutions usually capture media attention and quickly come to light. This gives defenders of church-state separation time to examine the programs and determine their constitutionality.

Some of these programs are definitely problematic. In 2003, Americans United for Separation of Church and State sued to block a program at Newton State Prison in Iowa. The so-called "InnerChange Freedom Initiative" (IFI), run by Charles Colson's Prison Fellowship, was a clear example of the dangers of mixing fundamentalist dogma with public funds.

In court, Americans United proved that IFI is saturated with fundamentalist religion and that inmates taking part in it were given special perks not available to others.

A federal judge ruled tax-funded support of the program unconstitutional in June of 2006, and a year later a federal appeals court affirmed that ruling. IFI is no longer operating in Iowa prisons.

During the litigation, Americans United argued that the IFI program revolves around an inmate's willingness to embrace a narrow version of faith–we pointed out that this religious perspective saturated the program. Public funds, we argued, could not support such a sectarian approach.

In the IFI program, we found evidence that other denominations and religions were disparaged, and even noted that inmates were taught fundamentalist doctrines related to social policy. One IFI speaker attacked evolution. Participants were told that being gay is a sin. Men serving hard time behind bars were assured that, upon their release, they could go home confident that the Bible ordains them to run their households.

Worse yet, the men taking part in the program were given desirable perks that other inmates did not got – cells with private bathrooms, keys to their cells, generous access to computers and musical instruments and, perhaps most importantly, the ability to take part in an accelerated program that often led to parole.

IFI had claimed great success in rehabilitating inmates; staffers claimed they had greatly lowered the recidivism rate. This turned out to be illusionary. A study commissioned by Prison Fellowship seemed to show IFI graduates returning to prison at a lower rate than other inmates. It was soon revealed that the data had been cooked. In fact, when an independent researcher examined the data, he found that IFI participants ended up back in prison at a slightly higher rate than those who had not been through the program.

IFI is no longer operating at Newton, but that does not mean we've seen the end of "faith-based" prisons. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush oversaw the creation of such a facility in that state. Two others have since opened. Bush insisted that the prison would offer programs from many different faiths, and many of the programs and supplies are run by volunteers and paid for with donations. So far, no litigation has been filed against these prisons, but advocates of church-state separation continue to monitor the situation.

Most recently, a Religious Right activist proposed opening a "Christian" prison in Wakita, Oklahoma. The facility, to be run by a private Texas-based ministry called Corrections Concepts, would hire only Christians, and inmates would be required to take part in sectarian activities.

Americans United protested, and in response, state corrections officials said they had no intention of giving state money or support to such a facility. Oklahoma officials were wise to step away. The plan presented a host of problems. A publicly funded institution, for example, may not discriminate on religious grounds when hiring staff or subject employees to a religious litmus test.

There isn't a lot of sympathy for prison inmates in this country. Many of the men and women behind bars are incarcerated for serious crimes. Few would want them as neighbors. Yet we must accept the fact that most of these people will at some point be released into the general population. It's in our interest that they give up criminal activities. Shuttling them off to religious programs and hoping they'll become devout Christians who lead crime-free lives is naïve.

Faith-based prisons raise serious constitutional issue because they direct tax money into religious activities. But when we go deeper, we can see the real problem: These proposals are yet another example of the Religious Right's insistence – one sadly often supported by many government leaders – that an embrace of fundamentalist Christianity can solve any social ill. This approach has failed in just about every other context ("abstinence only" sex education, anyone?) and it will fail here.

Prison inmates, and indeed the larger culture, deserve a real solution to the problems presented by crime and recidivism. Faith-based prisons aren't it.

(Rob Boston is senior policy analyst at Americans United for Separation of Church and State and is on the board of directiors of the American Humanist Association.)