Beyond the God Pod
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"Don't forget that Jesus Christ himself was a prisoner" – New Mexico Department of Corrections Secretary Joe Williams, at the American Correctional Conference in Phoenix, Ariz., January 2005.
"Strongly guarded ... is the separation between religion and government in the Constitution of the United States" – James Madison, author of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Betty Ramirez is a career correctional officer who actually loves her job. She believes in the power of rehabilitation and redemption for the women she is responsible for guarding and protecting. More than anything, Ramirez believes they deserve a second chance.
Or a third, a fourth or a fifth, as the case may be. New Mexico's recidivism rate is the nation's third-highest and, by some estimates, up to 85 percent of women who are incarcerated and released within this state will end up back in prison.
Ramirez, nonetheless, believes in the potential for rehabilitation of even the most hardened inmates. "Most of these women are sorry for what they have done," she says, "But have run into bad luck and bad situations."
A petite woman with a powerful presence, Ramirez is one of the few Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) employees who have been at the New Mexico Women's Correctional Facility (NMWCF) in Grants, N.M. from the very beginning when the facility became the first privately run women's prison in the nation in 1989. The move signaled what later became a full-blown trend toward the privatization of incarceration statewide – and nationwide.
In the ensuing 16 years, Ramirez watched the population in this facility increase dramatically as increasing numbers of non-violent and addicted offenders were sentenced to longer and longer sentences under more punitive drug war laws. From 149 state prisoners in 1989 to nearly 600 women today, the majority of these women have had one or more children by the time they get locked up. Most come from backgrounds filled with abuse, neglect, poverty, drug and alcohol addiction, domestic violence and limited educational and vocational opportunities.
Ramirez greets fellow correctional officers and inmates alike as she walks in and out of classes, workshops and prison pods. An early stop includes a visit to two segregation pods where a few dozen women are locked down 23 hours a day in small, dark solitary confinement cells. Ramirez, who used to work in the segregation pods, acknowledges that segregation "can be very stressful" for the inmates who do not have contact with the outside world – let alone other inmates – for months or even years on end.
But there is one area of the prison that stands in particularly sharp contrast to the bleak desperation of the segregation pods: the God pod.
Officially this is the Life Principles Community/Crossings Program. It's a program officials consider the real "success story" within the confines of NMWCF. As a housing pod, Crossings has been around for four years with the enthusiastic support of the prison administration and Chaplain Shirley Compton. More recently, CCA picked Crossings as one of eight sites nationwide to pioneer a new partnership with a fundamentalist Christian ministry named the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP).
Although it is not the only religious activity at the prison it is, by far, the most institutionalized and structured. In many ways, it also is the most problematic from a First Amendment point of view. It is in this unit that the blurring of the line between church and state is most evident, harkening a new turn in corrections toward Christian-based programming that has begun to truly influence (or, depending on one's perspective, to infiltrate) the nation's prisons.
Religious programming for prisoners has been around for years. At NMWCF, volunteers from churches of various denominations come in to lead Catholic mass, baptisms, Bible studies and other activities, and an Albuquerque-based ministry named Wings has gained particular preference to conduct its large-scale, Christian-based family reunification program/pizza party events inside Grants (and, soon, many other prisons across the state). The Kairos Prison Ministry, the mission of which is to "bring Christ's love and forgiveness to all incarcerated individuals" also has a presence.
But an increased emphasis on religion from the federal government has impacted the scope – and amount of money – available for such programs.
In fact, two adult prisons in the Florida corrections system are now entirely faith-based, while Florida's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention has launched the nation's first Faith and Community Based Delinquency Treatment Initiative. (Funding from the federal government has placed such an emphasis on the faith element of juvenile programming that many previously secular treatment and residential facilities for youth have made the decision in the past year to center their programs on "faith" in order to keep receiving money.)
Since its inception in 1998, President Bush's emphasis on his administration's National Faith-Based Initiative has risen to $1.33 billion, or nearly 10 percent of available funding from five federal agencies (Education, Labor, Justice, Health and Human Services and Housing), with marked increases every year. (Fully 25 percent of HUD's funding in fiscal year 2003, for instance, went to faith-based organizations.)
"Government has got to find ways to empower those whose mission is based upon love, in order to help those who need to find love in society," President Bush said last week, while calling for Congress and state governors to remove remaining "roadblocks" to funding faith-based initiatives.
In New Mexico, the National Faith-Based Initiative has not specifically provided money for the Crossings program, which is funded out of New Mexico's general fund (through the CCA), as well as through seasonal in-prison sales of food and other popular prison items to inmates. But the president's emphasis on the faith needs of people returning to the community from prison has channeled millions of dollars in the direction of ex-offender transition programs involving churches and, in doing so, providing an overt justification for "volunteer" in-prison faith-based programs.
"Voluntary" is a key word with these programs and institutions, and the White House has gone to great lengths to say these kinds of programs are not intended to convert people to any particular religion or sect of Christianity.
But the voluntary nature of these programs has become the looming question for organizations like Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, which has filed two lawsuits challenging religious prison programs in Iowa and Pennsylvania. In the Pennsylvania case, filed in mid-February 2005, both the state chapter of the ACLU and Americans United are challenging the right of a county jail to use tax dollars to fund a Christian-centered job-training program. That program is the only vocational program in the county jail, and hires only Christians to work within the program. (Federal legislation is pending to allow such programs to discriminate in hiring based on religious background.)
"You have to be willing to convert to [Christian] fundamentalism, or put up with attempts to convert you," says Robert Boston, a spokesperson for Americans United. "These programs have come in and offered something of a substitute for the real educational and vocational programs that have disappeared."
According to John Lanz, CCA's national director of Industry and Special Programs, the Life Principles/Crossings program has benefited greatly from the recent decision to partner with IBLP because that relationship cements a "franchise-like approach ... which helps maintain the integrity of the [Crossings] program."
"Inmates are understanding that they don't have to convert from one religion to another," Lanz adds.
That's a theme echoed by Chaplain Compton, the New Mexico Department of Corrections and NMWCF Warden Bill Snodgrass. Snodgrass did not make himself available for an interview either in person or by telephone, but was quoted last month in the Albuquerque Journal as supporting the program and saying that inmates who follow the program are 90 to 95 percent less likely to end up back in prison.
Both CCA's corporate headquarters as well as the NMWCF staff stress, repeatedly, that everyone is welcome to learn from what the program has to offer, that everything is on a volunteer basis and that religious conversion is not a prerequisite or end goal of the program. One inmate in the program insists: "It's multi-faith. Yes, we're Christian, but we would not turn anyone away."
This insistence is harder to believe once one examines the materials used in the program and learns who is behind them.
"Have you received Jesus Christ as your personal Savior?," asks one of the sections of the various IBLP workbooks given to prisoners. "The first function of faith is to believe in Christ for salvation," reads another section. "The Holy Spirit then takes up residence in your spirit and confirms that you are a Christian ... Disobeying the promptings of the Holy Spirit will cause Him to be grieved and will quench His power in your life."
The text is, despite what CCA's officials say, clearly intended to convert people to a particularly fundamentalist interpretation of Christianity that revolves around a man named Bill Gothard.
Bill Gothard, the 71-year-old unmarried real estate mogul at the head of the Illinois-based IBLP, has been in the business of American evangelism since 1964. Originally named the Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts, IBLP officially changed its name in 1990. All totaled, IBLP boasts that at least 2.5 million people have attended IBLP's seminars and ministries in the U.S. and many other countries, including Russia, Mongolia, Romania and Taiwan.
Gothard has not only gained success both through his religious education programs and training centers, but also through a secular instruction program, Character First, that is in wide use in public schools across the U.S. but does not publicize its origins.
The IBLP, on the other hand, makes no claims whatsoever of secularism, or even respect for other world religions or worldviews. Officially established "for the purpose of introducing people to the Lord Jesus Christ," IBLP announces that it does so by providing "training on how to find success by following God's principles found in Scripture."
That is to say Gothard's own interpretation of Scripture, which represents a very literal, overtly patriarchal and highly authoritarian take on what Jesus Christ was all about.
To take but one example, Gothard's workbook materials distributed to the women in the Grants Crossings program includes a breakdown of "basic life principles" including "Moral Purity," "Yielding Rights" and "Proper Submission."
"Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as it is fit in the Lord," reads one of the biblical selections scattered throughout the IBLP workbooks. Emphasis is placed on "courting" rather than "dating;" on women obeying their husbands; preserving marriage at all costs (to the point of rejecting divorce as a possible resolution to a soured relationship); and on the need for Christians to respect, obey and submit to church and government. These institutions and their rulers, as the workbooks explain, exist because of God's will.
"Must we continue to respect an evil ruler as a minister of God?" reads one question in a section of an IBLP workbook. "YES" comes the answer from Gothard's reading of I Samuel 24:10. "When David had an opportunity to destroy Saul, who was trying to kill him, he said: I will not put forth mine hand against the Lord: for he is the Lord's anointed."
The partnership with the Chicago-based IBLP was made official one year ago, but this isn't the first time CCA has partnered with a Christian evangelical group. Since its first such arrangement with a Christian-based ministry in 1991, CCA has taken a self-described leadership role in its mission to bring faith-based programs to prisons. In recent years, CCA has partnered with groups such as Good News Jail & Prison Ministry, School of Christ International and Child Evangelism Fellowship, the latter of which already operates in NMWCF to provide weekly devotional lessons to both parents in prison and to their children on the outside.
CCA has become so convinced of the power of the IBLP residential program that the company now plans to institute similar pods in every one of its owned prisons. (As the nation's biggest private prison corporation, CCA now represents the fifth-biggest prison system in the U.S., with 65,000 prisoner beds in 64 facilities – 38 of which are company-owned.)
Legally, CCA is obligated to provide access to multi-faith services where they are requested. But in selecting their religious "partners," CCA has opted exclusively for arrangements with Christian evangelical and fundamentalist groups. The vast majority of chaplains in CCA prisons are indeed Christian. "It's difficult to find an imam or a rabbi for these positions," Lanz says, "although we have a few that come into our facilities to conduct their services in our programs."
The newest faith-based ventures – above and beyond the expansion of the IBLP program into all CCA-owned facilities – will likely be a partnership with Rick Warren, the founding pastor of the Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif. Saddleback brags that it has baptized more than 9,200 "new believers," and sent over 4,000 of its members on worldwide Christian missions. Lanz says he plans to work with Warren to bring his Purpose Driven Life Curriculum to the company's prisons.
Other planned events include weekend-long Christian celebrations with Champions of Life at selected CCA prisons, as well as the possibility of bringing in Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship to work on re-entry programs with its prisoners.
Colson, a Christian conservative who served time for Nixon-era Watergate offenses, has sprung to the forefront of the revived trend in faith-based rehabilitation in prisons, having found a strong ally in George W. Bush. In 1997, then-Gov. Bush allowed Prison Fellowship to run a 24-hour religious program in the Texas state prison system. Today, the Fellowship publishes the bimonthly Inside Journal geared toward spreading Christianity to prisoners, and operates the InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI) for 140 men in a medium-security prison in Kansas, among other programs.
Crowing about the success of the IFI immersion programs, President Bush has said he would like to bring that program to federal prisons, referencing a University of Pennsylvania study that received favorable attention from national news outlets including the Wall Street Journal . The White House and Christian conservatives were aglow over the study's findings that InnerChange Freedom Initiative graduates from the Texas program were two times less likely to be rearrested than a matched comparison group.
But the data on those successes was distorted, as Mark Kleiman from Slate magazine later pointed out in a August 2003 exposé, "Faith-Based Fudging." In point of fact, when the total number of prisoners in the program was counted (including those who dropped out of the program, were expelled or received early parole), IFI participants were actually more likely to be rearrested and reincarcerated than their non-IFI counterparts.
This correction has been largely ignored by the White House, Colson's Prison Fellowship and, most certainly, by CCA. No other studies exist in the US proving the success of religious immersion prison programs.
NMWCF maintains that the Crossings program has, in fact, reduced recidivism dramatically.
"What is happening is amazing," says Lanz. "These are turning out to be the cleanest and best pods in our facilities."
Known as the "God pod" by some of the prisoners at Grants, the Life Principles Community/Crossings unit is clean, orderly and decorated with handmade declarations of Christian love and obeisance. Scripture-based books and movies pack the shelves of a small library in the pod; prisoner cubicles are neat and colorful; and an invitingly intimate living room area offers prisoners the comfort of couches, a microwave and a decidedly peaceful ambiance.
As far as prison facilities go, this kind of environment is truly a rarity. Other pods in this prison are not as nicely furnished and are far more noisy and hectic. Some pods house nearly 45 women, with one correctional officer on the floor trying to keep track of the women's movements. (Still and all, the relative comfort and privacy in the housing pods are far better than dismal women's prison conditions in neighboring states like Texas and Arizona, to say nothing of California's eight-women-to-a-cell solution to overcrowding.)
With 30 women in residence and another 35 on a waiting list, the Crossings pod is explicitly religious – and rigorously so. The program involves engaging in spiritual counseling and religious meetings, prayer walks, meditation, memorization of the New Testament and 732 hours of activities ostensibly geared toward helping a woman succeed after her release from prison – with a mandate that the woman stays involved in a "faith community."
There is no regular television for the Crossings women, and no hip-hop or rock music to speak of. Even Christian rock music is explicitly frowned upon, in accordance with IBLP instructions.
In one workbook, devotees are told that listening to rock music will lead to an addiction to it. "As in the case of a drug addict, a 'rock addict' will sacrifice God-given relationships with his parents and will neglect fellowship with Godly Christians in his compulsion to listen to his music ... Only God can free a 'rock addict' from the bondage of Satan's strongholds."
When the Crossings women join together to sing and dance to music, then, it is only to devotional music deemed appropriate. During a visit, several of the women perform expressive dances to "I Can Only Imagine" and "Psalms Three" and to hear a vocal performance of "City Called Glory" by the head of the choir. The emotional intensity of these performances is clear; several women are, in fact, moved to tears. "It instills character in all of us," one inmate says. "It betters our lives through belief in God."
As for NMWCF's claim that the program is reducing recidivism, it is true that only a few women who graduated from that program have returned to prison. It also is true that those numbers are based on "graduates," not on the total number of women who have enrolled in the program and dropped out, or been removed for drug sales or using the program as a cover for other illicit activities.
But NMWCF Chaplain Compton is confident that the people who stay in the program will have a better shot at reintegrating into their communities. "There is a change in self-esteem," she says. "We see a change in their behavior and the way that they handle things."
The reason for the dramatic change, adds Compton, has everything to do with the transformative belief in a higher power. "They realize that there is a God. They are helpless, and God is in control if they allow him to be."
As for Betty Ramirez, she too is proud of the changes that she has seen in the women in the Crossings program. She is also a Christian who believes strongly in the transformative power that faith can have on prisoners. She raises no questions or objections about the religious texts used. Her job is to keep things running smoothly. "I have a good working relationship on both sides of the fence," she says. "I know what to look for and what to expect. With so many women, you aren't running anything, you're just trying to control things. For the [male guards] it's sometimes hard to adjust. The women are very vocal and very opinionated."
At least for now.
Silja J.A. Talvi writes for In These Times, the Christian Science Monitor, The Nation and other publications. Her work appears in the anthology, Prison Nation (Routledge, 2003).