WASHINGTON — Emboldened by the reported success of a Christian rehabilitation program in state prisons, the Bush administration is seeking ways to expand such programs to inmates in federal prisons.
The head of the White House office for faith-based initiatives, Jim Towey, told reporters last week that President Bush had asked Attorney General John Ashcroft to seek ways of expanding such programs to federal prisons. Federal prisons offer a faith-based program that is not tied to any one denomination and have not offered Christian-only programs.
Bush’s plans are causing alarm among advocates of church-state separation. “If the administration’s idea is to provide programs where there is no non-Christian or nonreligious alternative, then we would strongly oppose it,” said Marc Stern, assistant executive director of the American Jewish Congress.
Towey’s announcement came as Bush was meeting at the White House with Chuck Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries, which operates an Evangelical Christian rehabilitation program for inmates in several states.
A report touting the success of Colson’s program in Texas prisons had been released just hours earlier at a Washington press conference.
Colson, who was White House counsel under President Nixon and spent seven months in prison for his part in the Watergate affair, launched the InnerChange Freedom Initiative in 1997 at a Texas prison, with close enthusiastic support from Bush, then the state’s governor. The program is now offered at prisons in Kansas, Minnesota and Iowa. The state program in Iowa is facing a legal challenge on grounds that it violates the Constitution by receiving state government funding.
Officials from the White House’s faith-based office and the federal Justice Department confirmed the administration’s intention to introduce programs such as that of Colson to the federal prison system, but did not offer further details.
A spokeswoman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons said that the bureau already runs a recently-launched faith-based “pre-release” program, based on Bush’s initiative.
However, unlike the Texas program, which is Christian-only, the existing federal program, known as Life Connections, is open to inmates of all faiths and strives to link them with volunteer “mentors” of their faith and with a corresponding faith-community — whether Christian or non-Christian — in their release destination.
Towey’s remarks suggest that the White House is now striving to find ways to provide federal inmates with Christian-only programs, such as Colson’s, as well.
This move comes as debate is heating up in Washington over faith-based programs to rehabilitate prisoners. Opponents, alarmed by the momentum these programs are gaining in state prisons nationwide, charge that the alliance between states and evangelists is exploiting prison walls to shatter the wall between government and religion. They charge that the programs effectively proselytize a captive population that has few other options for rehabilitation and to discriminate against minority religions.
Two lawsuits filed in Iowa against Colson’s InnerChange program allege that the program indoctrinates participants in the Christian religion, discriminates in hiring staff on religious grounds and gives inmates special privileges if they enroll. The lawsuits, one in the name of an inmate and the other in the name of families of inmates who don’t enjoy the program’s benefits, were filed by the Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
“This program is one of the most egregious violations of church-state separation I’ve ever seen,” said the executive director of Americans United, Reverend Barry W. Lynn, as he filed the lawsuits last February. “It literally merges religion and government. It is unconscionable for the government to give preferential treatment to prisoners based solely on their willingness to undergo religious conversion and indoctrination.”
The lawsuits charge that authorities at the Newton Correctional Facility in Newton, Iowa, fund Colson’s program, in part, by charging general-population inmates and their family members inflated rates for telephone calls and using the profits to pay for 40% to 50% of InnerChange’s costs. Housing for the program is also completely subsidized with public funds, the lawsuit says.
Church-state separation advocates view the Iowa litigation as pivotal to their effort to rein in Bush’s faith-based campaign. “These cases have substantial implications for President Bush’s faith-based initiative,” said Ayesha Khan, legal director of Americans United. “The president says it’s okay to use public dollars for religious discrimination, and we say it’s not. These cases will be among the first to determine how far the government can go in funding religious programs.”
Proponents of programs such as Colson’s point to new data that shows they yield impressive results. Shortly before Bush received Colson and a group of his colleagues at the White House last week, a study was released jointly by the University of Pennsylvania and the conservative Manhattan Institute, showing low recidivism rates for InnerChange graduates.
The InnerChange program involves 16 to 24 months of in-prison Bible education, work and community service. It is followed by six to 12 months of follow-up care after release in which a participant must hold a job and be an active church member for three consecutive months. The two-year study, conducted between 2000 and 2002, shows that InnerChange graduates, when compared with a similar group of released inmates — controlled for race, age and offense type — who met program criteria but did not enter the program, were 50% less likely to be arrested and 60% less likely to become reincarcerated.
“This is great news for America’s communities,” said the president of Prison Fellowship Ministries, Mark Earley, a former Virginia state attorney general and onetime gubernatorial candidate, in a statement hailing the report.
Speaking later at the White House, Towey said: “Faith-based initiatives are about transforming lives. This study indicates early signs of making headway toward reducing recidivism. All of society benefits when prison inmates are transformed.”
Opponents counter that the program’s results do not compensate for the fact that it is unconstitutional. “This is no different from telling you that torture gets confessions, or that guilty people are caught by illegal searches,” said AJCongress’s Stern. “We have a Constitution not to protect us against bad ideas, but to protect us against good ideas. So it’s fine that they have a low recidivism rate, but it still doesn’t mean that the government can fund it.”
Michael Lieberman, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Civil Rights Policy Planning Center in Washington, said: “It is not simply a debate about efficacy. It is also about not discriminating against people and not proselytizing. It’s about the law and it’s about policy.” In principle, he said, he and his colleagues don’t object to using faith to help prisoners. The problem, Lieberman said, starts when the government effectively cedes responsibilities to religious organizations and does not apply appropriate safeguards to ensure that these organizations don’t abuse responsibilities delegated to them by the government.
In fact, said Stern, such abuse is unavoidable if one faith has an effective monopoly on delivering a rehabilitative program in a given prison, which is the way Colson’s program is operated. “It would be different if there were six other programs running in the prison and you had a real choice,” Stern said. “But you don’t. Where Colson’s program runs, you don’t have a Jewish program or a Buddhist program or an atheist program.”
Moreover, Stern said, that is why the University of Pennsylvania-Manhattan Institute study is meaningless. InnerChange graduates are not compared in the study to graduates of equivalent non-Christian programs, but to inmates who did not graduate any program. “It’s not even like comparing apples to oranges,” Stern said. “It’s like comparing apples to nothing. This only tells us that if you pay attention to people and help them get a job after they get out, they’ll do better. Well, of course they will, but will they do better than [graduates of] a secular program?”
The lesson, said Kara Gotsch of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, is not that Colson’s program is wrong or misguided. To the contrary, the lesson is that “everyone, regardless of their religious faith and background, should have access to rehabilitative programming. Rehabilitation services do work, and therefore they should be offered to minority religions, not just Christians, and even to people who don’t have a religion,” Gotsch said.