Charles Colson's faith-based prison program shut down
By Bill Berkowitz
Online Journal Guest Writer

Jul 21, 2006, 00:29

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 of Iowa.

"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 extraordinary."

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:

  • While 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.
  • The 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.
  • While 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.
  • In addition to formal coursework, the program imposes numerous religious requirements, including attendance at regular Friday night revival meetings and at Sunday morning worship services.
  • There 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.
  • The 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 life."

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 results.

"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.

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