After serving time in prison for Watergate-related crimes,
Charles W. Colson embraced Christianity, founded Prison Fellowship Ministries (website) in 1976, and has since
become a high profile, well-respected and oft-quoted Christian conservative
leader. Over the past several years, Colson's InnerChange Freedom Initiative
(IFI) has partnered with prison authorities in several states, including Texas,
Minnesota, Kansas, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Missouri, to provide prisoners with
a Christ-centered rehabilitation program.
In June, however, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Pratt,
chief judge of the US District Court for the Southern District of Iowa, handed
Colson's operation a setback. Judge Pratt ruled in favor of a suit filed by
Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) which claimed that
IFI's operation at Iowa's Newton Correctional Facility violated the
Establishment Clause of the US Constitution.
Judge Pratt ordered an end to the program within 60 days,
and also ordered InnerChange to reimburse more than $1.5 million to the state
"For all practical purposes, the state has literally
established an Evangelical Christian congregation within the walls of one its
penal institutions, giving the leaders of that congregation, i.e., InnerChange
employees, authority to control the spiritual, emotional, and physical lives of
hundreds of Iowa inmates," wrote Pratt. "There are no adequate
safeguards present, nor could there be, to ensure that state funds are not
being directly spent to indoctrinate Iowa inmates."
Pratt also pointed out, "The level of religious
indoctrination supported by state funds and other state support in this case in
comparison to other programs treated in the case law . . . is
In late June, Prison Fellowship Ministries, the InnerChange
Freedom Initiative and the State of Iowa notified the courts that they would
appeal Judge Pratt's ruling. "It is our belief that the InnerChange
Freedom Initiative is constitutional and well within the framework of the
safeguards of the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution," Prison
Fellowship President Mark Earley said in a released statement. The appeal was
made to the U.S. District Court in Iowa and the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals.
In a story posted June 14 at the American Enterprise
Institute's The American Enterprise Online, Joseph Knippenberg, a
professor of politics and associate provost for student achievement at
Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, pointed out that while he generally
"support[s]" the faith-based initiative, as well as "religious
efforts to put the penitence back in penitentiaries," he basically agreed
with Judge Pratt's ruling: "In this particular case . . . the state and
Prison Fellowship self-consciously tested the outer bounds of current
church-state jurisprudence, they went too far."
According to Knippenberg, Judge Pratt found that:
Iowa prison officials were primarily interested in a low-cost program that
promised to reduce recidivism among inmates, they
"gerrymandered" the Request for Proposals that led to the
contract with InnerChange, which was the sole bidder.
nature of the InnerChange program is such that it is impossible to clearly
distinguish and separate its religious and secular elements. There is one
clearly secular class --"Computer Training." Other classes that
have secular analogues in therapeutic rehabilitative programs, like
"Anger Management," are taught from an essentially Christian
point of view.
the InnerChange staff attempted to distinguish between their secular and
religious work, and bill the state accordingly, their efforts fell short.
Where so much of the program is devoted to inculcating a Christian
worldview, it is difficult, if not impossible, to precisely delineate what
portion of a staffer's time, or what fraction of a piece of equipment's
value is devoted to secular, as opposed to religious, purposes.
addition to formal coursework, the program imposes numerous religious
requirements, including attendance at regular Friday night revival
meetings and at Sunday morning worship services.
is no comparable secular or religious program elsewhere in the Iowa prison
system. Inmates who want a long-term comprehensive rehabilitation program
have no other choices.
living conditions and privileges afforded InnerChange participants are
sufficiently superior to those afforded the general prison population as
to be incentives to join the program. In effect, inmates are rewarded for
their participation in a religious program.
In a series of published commentaries defending the
InnerChange program, Mark Earley called the suit by Americans United, and
similar suits initiated by the Freedom from Religion Foundation, attacks that
go beyond merely opposition to President Bush's faith-based initiative:
"It's a religious battle being waged by groups whose religion really is no
religion. Our nation's prisons are merely the newest theater of operations in
the campaign to scrub every influence of religion from American public
Earley's op-ed pieces cited "Confronting
Confinement," a recent report issued by the Commission on Safety and Abuse
in America's Prisons, which found, according to Earley, that "the key to
reducing recidivism, enhancing security within the prisons, and protecting the
public is comprehensive rehabilitative programming."
In a conversation a while back with Dr. Terry Kupers, a
longtime prison reform advocate and the author of "Prison Madness: the
Mental Health Crisis Behind Bars and What We Must Do About it," a
comprehensive and highly readable study of the growing mental health crisis in
America's prisons, he suggested that most studies show that a fair amount of
resources directed toward comprehensive rehabilitation programs will generally
prove to be worthwhile.
While "Confronting Confinement" encourages
"invest[ment] in programs that are proven to reduce violence and to change
behavior over the long term," it says nothing about the efficacy of
faith-based prison programs.
For Earley, however, "comprehensive rehabilitative
programs" clearly means a program saturated with Christianity. He appears
to believe that only faith-based programs can be effective in reducing
recidivism rates among prisoners. He is quoted by Christian Newswire as
arguing that the effort to remove faith-based programs from prisons
"fosters a 'lock 'em up and throw away the key' approach to fighting
crime. It assumes that by warehousing criminals and providing no services to
help them change, society will be safer when they get out. Nothing could be
further from the truth."
In early July, Earley and Al Quie, the former governor of
Minnesota and chairman of the IFI Board of Directors, responded to what they
charged were "some erroneous statements in its June 15 editorial on the
InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI) program at Minnesota's Lino Lakes
prison," published by the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
While acknowledging that IFI's program is
"faith-based," Earley and Quie maintained that the program is not
coercive and has "help[ed] the state to reduce recidivism, enhance
security (through improved inmate accountability), and lower correctional costs."
Earley and Quie capped their argument by citing "An
independent study by the University of Pennsylvania [that] showed that
graduates of the InnerChange Freedom Initiative in Texas were far less likely
to return to prison within two years than inmates who did not participate in
IFI (8 percent compared to 20 percent)."
But the study cited by Earley and Quie -- and frequently
referred to in Earley's commentaries -- was thoroughly debunked in an August
2003 piece, called "Faith-Based Fudging: How a Bush-promoted Christian
prison program fakes success by massaging data," written by Mark A.R.
Kleiman, a professor of Policy Studies at the UCLA School of Public Policy and
Social Research, and published by Slate online magazine.
"You don't have to believe in faith-healing to think
that an intensive 16-month program, with post-release follow-up, run by deeply
caring people might be the occasion for some inmates to turn their lives
around. The report seemed to present liberal secularists with an unpleasant choice:
Would you rather have people 'saved' by Colson, or would you rather have them
commit more crimes and go back to prison?
"But when you look carefully at the Penn study, it's
clear that the program didn't work. The InnerChange participants did somewhat
worse than the controls: They were slightly more likely to be rearrested and
noticeably more likely (24 percent versus 20 percent) to be reimprisoned. If
faith is, as Paul told the Hebrews, the evidence of things not seen, then
InnerChange is an opportunity to cultivate faith; we certainly haven't seen any
"So, how did the Penn study get perverted into evidence
that InnerChange worked? Through one of the oldest tricks in the book, one
almost guaranteed to make a success of any program: counting the winners and
ignoring the losers. The technical term for this in statistics is 'selection
bias'; program managers know it as 'creaming.' Harvard public policy professor
Anne Piehl, who reviewed the study before it was published, calls this instance
of it 'cooking the books.'" Joseph Knippenberg maintained that the Iowa
ruling could have long term ramifications for other current and future
faith-based prison programs: 'I'm not convinced that the outcome in this
particular case is likely to be different in any other courtroom. This is
surely significant in the long run for many of the InnerChange prison units in
other states . . . for other religious pre-release programs in other states,
and for the Bush administration's effort to bring such programs into the
federal prison system.'
"At the very least, and even before any further
decisions are handed down, additional lawsuits will be filed. Indeed, perhaps
anticipating this very outcome, the Freedom From religion Foundation has filed
a suit challenging the Federal Bureau of Prisons' faith-based 'Life Connection
Program,' currently piloted at five federal prisons and, until recently,
scheduled for expansion."
Despite the Iowa ruling, it's not all gloom and doom for
Colson's prison enterprises. In the June issue of Americans United's Church
& State magazine, Jeremy Leaming reported that Colson's group was the
main candidate for a new Justice Department initiative seeking to establish a
"single-faith" prison rehabilitation program.
The initiative's stated purpose was to "facilitate
personal transformation for the participating inmates through their own
spirituality or faith. . . ." and "match inmates with personal
mentors and a faith-based community, community organization or support group at
their release destination to promote successful reintegration."
Leaming reported that Americans United Senior Litigation
Counsel Alex Luchenitser "argued that the program was troubling because it
seemed designed to benefit a specific charity -- Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship
Ministries. The solicitation listed 10 requirements, all of which mirror the
features of Colson's Inner-Change prison program."
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the
conservative movement. His WorkingForChange
column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions,
victories and defeats of the American Right.