Evangelical Conversion-for-Parole Program Thwarted
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The day after a federal court struck down a taxpayer-supported evangelical Christian program in an Iowa prison, Mark Earley, president of Prison Fellowship, issued a press statement. He was not pleased.
"The courts took God out of America's schools, now they are on the path to take God out of America's prisons," Earley groused.
Earley's analysis of judicial decisions dealing with religion and public schools was widely off the mark, but he had good reason to be upset about the recent ruling on public funds for inmate indoctrination. His organization, Prison Fellowship Ministries, founded by ex-Watergate felon Charles Colson, has been sponsoring the Iowa program for three years. If the ruling stands up on appeal, not only will Earley's group have to shut down the program, it will be required to repay the state of Iowa more than $1.5 million in public support it has received during that time.
The June 2 decision in Americans United for Separation of Church and State v. Prison Fellowship Ministries was a staggering loss not just for Earley's group but perhaps for key elements of President George W. Bush's "faith-based" initiative as well.
U.S. District Judge Robert W. Pratt didn't mince words. Officials at Iowa's Newton Correctional Facility had become, he wrote, far too entangled with religion by establishing a special wing for Prison Fellowship's InnerChange program. InnerChange, Pratt declared, is suffused with religion.
"The religion classes are not objective inquiries into the religious life, comparable to an adult study or college course, offered for the sake of discussing and learning universal secular, civic values or truths," Pratt wrote. "They are, instead, overwhelmingly devotional in nature and intended to indoctrinate InnerChange inmates into the Evangelical Christian belief system."
Later in the ruling, Pratt observed, "For all practical purposes, the state has literally established an Evangelical Christian congregation within the walls of one of 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."
Attorneys at Americans United were especially gratified by the legal victory. For AU's legal team, Pratt's meticulous 140-page ruling capped more than three years of hard work, including extensive research and on-site visits with inmates and their families in Newton.
Americans United first became interested in the case late in 2002 after a Newton inmate filed a lawsuit pro se (without an attorney) challenging the program and outlining its details. Americans United agreed to represent the inmate and filed another lawsuit against the state's support of the program on behalf of taxpayers and family members of inmates. The two lawsuits were then combined into one.
The InnerChange program was given the prison's "honor unit," which had been used to house the best-behaved inmates. Those inmates were dumped back into the general population. In their place, about 200 inmates took possession of the wing and began receiving religious instruction around the clock.
Iowa corrections officials had instituted the program in 1999. In the first full year, the state allocated $229,950 from its Inmate Telephone Rebate Fund, funds obtained from surcharges placed on calls made to and by inmates. A few years after that, the state stopped using the telephone monies, instead funding the program with direct appropriations from the Healthy Iowans Tobacco Trust, which is partly composed of tax dollars.
Many inmates and their families were especially upset over the allocation from the telephone rebate program. Money from that fund is supposed to be spent on programs to benefit all prisoners, yet a significant portion of it was being siphoned off to fund a religious program that only some inmates wanted.
AU's lawsuit challenged only state involvement with InnerChange, not religious programs in prisons generally. Prison inmates have the right to practice their faith behind bars. They may read religious literature, receive visits from spiritual counselors and, within the confines of the unique security needs of prisons, access religious items.
The InnerChange program was something entirely different. The effort was established at Newton Correctional Facility after public issuance of a proposal that Pratt determined was "gerrymandered" to fit only the Colson group. State officials, he concluded, were adamant about establishing the evangelical program in the prison.
On paper, InnerChange was open to any inmate who wanted to take part. The reality on the ground was something else. The program was so saturated with the conservative, biblically literalist form of Christianity favored by Prison Fellowship that members of other faiths found it inhospitable. During the trial, several inmates testified that they found InnerChange impossible to reconcile with their own religious beliefs.
One inmate, Benjamin Burens, who practices a Native American religion, participated in InnerChange for a while, even though he is not a Christian. Burens testified that InnerChange staff pressured him to become a born-again Christian and criticized him for taking part in Native American rituals, labeling them a form of witchcraft. Burens was eventually expelled from the program.
According to the court record, non-evangelical Christians were commonly referred to by InnerChange staff as "unsaved," "lost," "pagan," those "who served the flesh," "of Satan," "sinful" and "of darkness."
This criticism of other faiths even extended to other Christian denominations. As Pratt noted, "Testimony revealed a constant tension between Roman Catholic inmates involved in InnerChange and the chronic problem of InnerChange volunteers criticizing Roman Catholic beliefs and practices.... InnerChange's Field Guide clearly warns that non-Christians and those who desire time to observe faith practices not included in the InnerChange program, e.g., Roman Catholics who wish to attend Mass or Native Americans who wish to participate in the sweat lodge ceremony, may do so only if those observances do not conflict with the InnerChange program requirements."
Pratt found this reliance on conversion clear evidence of InnerChange's sectarian character.
"To anyone well-acquainted with the program -- as are the state Dept. of Corrections management team and the InnerChange staff -- the object of the InnerChange program is to change inmates' behavior through personal conversion to Christianity," he wrote. "InnerChange's position that no one actually is required to convert to pass through the program is mere formalism. Every waking moment in the InnerChange program is devoted to teaching and indoctrinating inmates into the Christian faith."
AU had also raised issues of unequal treatment among inmates, based on their willingness to conform to the evangelical atmosphere of InnerChange. Again Pratt found this argument compelling.
InnerChange inmates enjoyed perks and benefits that are significant to an incarcerated population. The special unit for InnerChange inmates featured private toilet facilities and cells with wooden doors instead of steel. The environment was generally safer, and inmates were entrusted with keys to their own cells. InnerChange inmates had extra contact with their family members and even gathered together to watch movies on weekends.
But InnerChange inmates got an even bigger benefit: access to special classes that made parole much more likely. Treatment classes are a condition of parole in Iowa, and most inmates must wait until they approach their release date to take part in them. InnerChange inmates got the classes earlier, significantly increasing their odds of being granted parole.
In an attempt to defend the program, Earley and other Prison Fellowship officials insisted that taxpayer money was funding only the secular aspects of InnerChange. AU attorneys attacked this assertion, quoting Prison Fellowship Ministries' own materials to prove that there are no secular aspects to InnerChange.
AU cited an InnerChange document that asserted, "All programming all day, every day is Christ-centered." The organization also noted that Prison Fellowship was trying to have it both ways: bragging to its fundamentalist Christian supporters about the program's religiosity and then playing it down before government officials to get more tax support.
In fact, even a cursory glance at the organization and its materials exposed InnerChange's ties to evangelical Christianity. Its website states upfront: "The InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI) is a revolutionary, Christ-centered, faith-based prison program supporting prison inmates through their spiritual and moral transformation."
It adds, "IFI is an integral part of bringing a biblical sense of justice to correctional facilities in America. We are confident that the results will matter. States will realize a spectacular reduction in the rate ex-offenders are returned to prison and Prison Fellowship through equipping, exhorting and assisting the local church to minister to prisoners, victims and their families will realize souls won for the Kingdom of God."
The Web site emphasizes InnerChange's reliance on the "transformational model" of rehabilitation. This model, InnerChange asserts, "tries to help inmates' change by identifying sin as the root of their problems. It encourages inmates to turn from their sinful past, see the world through God's eyes, and surrender to God's will. This model promotes the transformation of the inmate from the inside out through the miraculous power of God's love."
All paid staff and volunteers at Prison Fellowship and InnerChange must agree with the organization's view on theology. Staff members must sign Prison Fellowship's Statement of Faith, which reflects fundamentalist beliefs. Non-evangelicals and non-Christians are not hired.
Pratt had no problem debunking claims that InnerChange has secular components. "The overtly religious atmosphere of the InnerChange program is not simply an overlay or a secondary effect of the program -- it is the program...," he wrote. "Here, every activity -- worship services, revivals, community meetings, daily devotionals -- is organized and developed by the InnerChange program and is designed to transform an individual spiritually. Even the otherwise traditional rehabilitation classes themselves, as set forth above, have been turned into classes intended to indoctrinate inmates into the Christian faith."
With so many of their key claims left in tatters by the decision, defenders of InnerChange were left clinging to a frequent fallback position: InnerChange should receive tax funding because it reduces prisoner recidivism.
Responding to the ruling, Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, told Baptist Press, "A federal judge finds a prison rehab program that actually works and has much lower recidivism rates than other programs, and so he declares it unconstitutional because it dares to bring a faith element into the program."
In fact, there is no objective evidence that InnerChange works or reduces recidivism. In 2003, Colson released what he said was statistical validation for this claim, trumpeting a study purporting to show that inmates who took part in InnerChange returned to prison at a much lower rate than those who did not.
The study made a big splash in the media, but the claims quickly evaporated. Mark Kleiman, a professor of public policy at the University of California-Los Angeles, examined the data and found it to be statistically invalid. Prison Fellowship had excluded all the prisoners who did not finish the program, in essence kicking its failures out. When all of the participants were added back in, Kleiman found that InnerChange participants actually returned to prison at a slightly higher rate than a control group.
Nevertheless, program supporters like Land continue to dutifully regurgitate the assertion that InnerChange has shown startling rates of success. Although without foundation, this claim has undoubtedly helped the program spread to other states. InnerChange now receives tax support in Texas, Kansas and Minnesota, and a program that Prison Fellowship claims is privately funded was launched in Arkansas just days before the ruling came down.
In addition, InnerChange hopes to make inroads into the federal prison system. In March, the U.S. Justice Department announced it was soliciting proposals for a "single-faith" prison rehabilitation program to "facilitate personal transformation for the participating inmates through their own spirituality or faith...."
The solicitation listed 10 requirements that interested groups must have -- all of which just happen to mirror the features of InnerChange. Earley seemed to get the message, telling The Washington Post that his group is "very interested" in the proposal.
Americans United has been communicating with the Justice Department, trying to persuade it to fix the proposal's constitutional defects. The ruling in the Iowa lawsuit, AU attorneys say, will help them make the case.
The Justice Department's interest in "faith-based" rehabilitation isn't surprising. The current director of the Justice Department's Task Force On Faith-Based And Community Initiatives is Steven T. McFarland, a former lawyer with the Christian Legal Society who also served as vice president for program and partnership development for Prison Fellowship International from 2002-05.
The Iowa ruling could also have broader implications for the entire "faith-based" approach to other social service programs. Faith-based funding assumes that religious content can be legally underwritten by taxpayer dollars. The Iowa decision casts serious doubt on that claim.
Americans United chose to litigate against InnerChange, in part, because it was an opportunity to bring a test case against the faith-based initiative. For years, initiative backers have insisted that the religious component of faith-based services can somehow be isolated and government money directed only to what remains. AU has argued that most faith-based plans are so saturated with religion that tax funding cannot go to them. This ruling upholds AU's argument and can only be seen as a blow to one of the key features of the Bush initiative.
"This decision should strongly bolster our efforts to rein in faith-based funding," said Americans United Senior Litigation Counsel Alex Luchenitser, who is lead counsel in the Iowa case. "The court's decision makes clear that the government cannot provide any support whatsoever to a program that proselytizes those it claims to serve, or coerces them to take part in religious activities or discriminates against those who refuse to adopt its religious teachings."
Luchenitser was joined on AU's litigation team by AU attorney Heather Weaver and Iowa civil rights attorney Dean Stowers.
Federal lawmakers who back the Bush faith-based initiative are well aware that the decision spells trouble for their agenda. On June 7, three House Republicans, Joseph R. Pitts of Pennsylvania, Trent Franks of Arizona and Steve King of Iowa, hosted a briefing with Earley in the Capitol to discuss the ruling and possible remedies. An attendee provided notes to Church & State .
Earley called the decision a "direct assault on the faith-based initiative" and went on to insist that the main purpose of InnerChange is not conversion. He and the House members attacked Americans United and AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn by name. They also overstated the reach of the decision, insisting that it puts prison chapels at risk. Franks went so far as to assert that advocates of separation of church and state will not rest until they remove religious symbols from the headstones at Arlington Cemetery.
Participants discussed a possible legislative response from Congress but decided to wait until the appeal is heard. One participant remarked that this case is one they "must not lose." (Pitts later attacked the ruling during a speech on the floor of the House.)
The ruling can also be seen as a blow to Colson's larger ambitions for society. For years, Colson and his backers have talked about saturating public institutions with the proper "biblical worldview" -- one of fundamentalist Christianity. Colson focused on prisons in part due to his personal history but also because prisons are a soft target. Public opinion leans toward a punishment model of corrections, and many rehabilitative or work programs have dried up in recent years. Recidivism rates remain high, leading some to back just about any approach that promises to prevent inmates from committing new crimes once they are released.
What lies ahead for the Iowa case? Judge Pratt, aware that his decision would be appealed, has temporarily stayed his order. If the ruling is sustained by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Newton officials will have to disband the program. In addition, Prison Fellowship will have to repay the state of Iowa $1,529,182.70. This type of repayment, called "recoupment," is unusual. In this case, Pratt said, it is justified for two reasons: First, as Pratt put it, "the severe nature of the violation." Secondly, the judge noted that InnerChange officials should have known their program was constitutionally suspect. He pointed out, for example, that corrections officials in California provided the group with a detailed memo explaining why that state would not fund the organization, citing constitutional concerns.
Americans United's Lynn hailed the opinion, saying it should stand as a warning to religious leaders tempted to take taxpayer funding.
"There is no way to interpret this decision as anything but a body blow to so-called faith-based initiatives," Lynn said. "Tax funds cannot underwrite conversion efforts." Continued Lynn, "Government has no business paying for religious indoctrination and conversion programs in prisons or any other tax-funded institution. Furthermore, church leaders who take faith-based funding may find that they've made an expensive misjudgment if their 'faith-based' funding is challenged."