Proselytizing in Prison
Tanya Erzen printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Wed Jul 19, 2006 at 03:06:26 PM EST
This week the British prison service barred the InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI), a biblically based prison program sponsored by Charles W. Colson's Prison Fellowship Ministries (PFM) from Dartmoor prison.  Their stated reason was that the program did not enhance diversity or provide a multi-faith agenda in the prison.  In June, U.S. District Judge Robert W. Pratt ordered IFI to shut down and reimburse the state of Iowa the $1.5 million it had received to fund its program in Newton Correctional Facility near Des Moines, Iowa.   The lawsuit, brought by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State argued that the program promotes evangelical Christianity at state expense.  

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.  There are no adequate safeguards present, nor could there be, to ensure that state funds are not being directly spent to indoctrinate Iowa inmates.
Since 2001, faith-based organizations have received 1.1 billion in federal and state funding with the mandate to focus their efforts on at-risk youth, ex-offenders and prisoners, homeless men and women, substance abusers, and welfare-to-work families. The White House office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives chose the Prison Fellowship Ministries as one of four national partners for a $22.5 million workplace re-entry program for ex-offenders.  

The PFM and Prison Fellowship International (PFI) were founded by Charles Colson, who served seven months in prison for his Watergate crimes in the 1970s and then remade himself as an advocate for the redemptive power of evangelical Christianity on criminals.  

InnerChange is a 24-hour immersion program in collaboration with the Department of Corrections that begins 18 to 24 months before an inmate is released.  PFM administers entire wings of men's medium security prisons in Texas, Minnesota, Iowa, and Kansas.  Inmates two years away from parole who attest to being born-again Christians and agree to the religious beliefs of IFI are eligible to join InnerChange.  They participate in a highly structured program of reading biblical scripture, practicing gospel music, studying for their high school equivalency exam, and learning life skills.  After their release, the program provides a Christian mentor for six to twelve months during which a participant must hold a job and be an active church member.  

By joining an InnerChange program, inmates can transfer from more dangerous parts of the prison system.  They have access to privileges such as keys to their cells, private bathrooms, big-screen televisions, and family visits.  Completing the InnerChange program usually means that inmates have an easier time with the Parole Board, and graduates are guaranteed a space in work-release as well as help finding a job and housing.  InnerChange offers substance-abuse treatment and free computer training. As one man who is not in InnerChange, noted,

The Christians do lots of stuff the state used to do, like vocational programs, but now they're only for believers.

Colson and Mark Early, the head of InnerChange, have launched a campaign to discredit the rulings and solicit private funding to keep the programs in place. They are also planning to appeal the court decision.  Colson and Early claim that the ruling hurts prisoners because it prevents them from experiencing what they call a "heart change" and truly becoming rehabilitated.  Early writes,

Without programs like IFI, British offenders, like their American counterparts, will be released from prison to once again prey upon the public; all of this in the name of... an Orwellian notion of "diversity."

Colson and Early also claim that the IFI program is a matter of religious freedom, reiterating almost identical language used by President Bush to justify the faith-based initiative program.  

Prison Fellowship wants to see a level playing field for people of faith. People of faith should not be excluded from providing services in the public square to those who have volunteered to receive them. We want prisoners to be able to take part in a program--yes, even a Christ-centered one--that will help them change their lives for the better if they desire to do so.

Neither Colson nor Early see a problem with federal money supporting a program that advocates the superiority of Christianity over all other religions. And, despite pleas for religious freedom, neither envisions an equal playing field for all faiths in prison.   In a recent column Chuck Colson warned about the dangers of radical Islam in America's prisons, asserting that prisons are "breeding grounds for future terrorists."  Early writes,

Their zeal to implement the "multi-faith agenda" has apparently blinded them to the true religious threat in British prisons: radical Islam.

Colson argues that, "no religious sect should be allowed to preach a doctrine that promotes violence, especially in prison."  His solution: "the surest antidote to the poison of hatred and revenge spread by some radical Islamists, is Christ's message of love, forgiveness, and peace."  

Where does Colson draw the line between providing social services and proselytizing to a captive population?  The message of the InnerChange programs is that rehabilitation occurs through redemption from Jesus, challenging the assumption that rehabilitation is and should be secular.  The premise of the faith-based policies is a theology of social action that claims religion itself is the solution for socioeconomic problems.  As the chief counsel for Americans United writes, "The government has no business treating some inmates better than others on the basis of religious belief."   However, Colson would disagree:

What's at stake is not just a prison program, but how we deal with social problems in our country. Do we do it through grassroots organizations or big government? We know what works.
 
A narrative of transformed personhood is central to the faith-based policies and to the way some organizations of the Christian Right view drug addiction, homosexuality and imprisonment.  Their answer to imprisonment and poverty is about conversion to evangelical Christianity.  Belief in Jesus will transform a person: from drug addict to clean and sober Christian, homosexual to ex-gay Christian, prisoner to law-abiding Christian.  The story of faith-based services as the main way to confront imprisonment has also become a way to privatize social policy and place the onus for solving social issues onto individuals.  

I've visited and taught in several prisons, and there is an overwhelmingly need for programs for men and women to transition out of prison.  Prison Fellowship Ministries has received an influx of government money while most prisons have eliminated education and job-training programs.  Instead of federal and state funding for religious programs, the federal government should direct that money to GED and college programs as they did before Congress eliminated the Pell Grant program in 1994.  There are underfunded programs already doing excellent work like the Prison University Project at San Quentin and the Learning Center for Women in Prison.

It is crucial to question the logic that becoming a born-again Christian is more transformative than an education and skills that enable incarcerated men and women to obtain lasting and meaningful employment.  Otherwise, the solution that the federal government and Chuck Colson see to imprisonment is simply conservative Christianity with a political agenda aligned with the Christian Right.  




Display:
I recently spent a day visiting Lawtey Correctional facility in Lawtey, Florida.  It was the first faith and character state prison in the United States, and it is designed to be an entirely religious facility, providing programs for prisoners of all faiths.  All of its materials and programs are on a volunteer basis.  The prison officials are careful to state publicly that they don't believe state funds should go to specific religious programs.  However, the existence of Lawtey and the two other faith and character programs in Florida raise interesting questions about the meaning of rehabilitation and the role of religion in the prison.  The two largest groups volunteering at Lawtey are non-denominational conservative Christian churches with ties to prominent Christian conservatives like Sam Brownback.

by Tanya Erzen on Wed Jul 19, 2006 at 03:21:59 PM EST
Is a high water mark.

by Bruce Wilson on Thu Jul 20, 2006 at 09:52:22 PM EST
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It irks me that our prison system is not really about rehabilitation, it's about punishment. Otherwise, fully rehabilitated people like Stanley 'Tookie' Williams would be allowed to continue contributing positively to society instead of being executed.  I think the bulk of rehabilitation is not through our laws or system, but through these other organizations.
I think it's perfectly ok for any group to volunteer and help in prisons, especially for the purposes of rehabilitation. The only problem I have is having government money go to these organizations. It's a conflict of interest. If you're self employed by definition you don't have to answer to a boss, but if you're an employee you are getting money from the boss, and you better be doing what the boss wants you to do. How can these organizations retain any control over what they do or what they stand for if they are getting paid by another entity?
And give me a break- it's not about religious freedom, because if Colson's group were Buddist or Mormon there would've been a hue and cry from the religious right over them even having contact with inmates. I don't know the Koran to quote its scripture, but I would imagine that the Moslem faith is not based on terrorism, as Colson implied. I don't think there is any faith that is based on terrorism, unless it's faith in corporatism.

by Tin Soul on Wed Jul 19, 2006 at 05:36:35 PM EST
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by shaka22 on Sun Apr 14, 2019 at 05:49:13 PM EST
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