Prisons

Faith/Off

Chuck Colson wants captives for Jesus

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Watergate-convict-turned-Christian evangelist Chuck Colson has the perfect solution to the alarming rise of Islamic fundamentalism among American prisoners. That solution would be a 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week fundamentalist Christian curriculum for male inmates. And if you live in Iowa, Minnesota, Kansas or Texas, you may already be paying for it.

In a case that could determine the boundaries of President Bush's faith-based initiative, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AU), a religious liberty watchdog group, is currently suing Colson's InnerChange program for its use of state funds. But the InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI) is only the most visible manifestation of a collective lurch toward fundamentalist Christianity among American prisons. Corrections Corporation of America, the nation's largest operator of private correctional facilities, has announced its intention to launch faith-based programs in each of its 59 facilities. And in the face of unmanageable state deficits, privately funded Christian programs are everywhere touted as cheap alternatives to clinical programs.

Prison Ministry in the United States dates back to the first modern American prison, where, flanked by loaded cannons aimed at his students, preacher William Rogers instilled the word of God into Pennsylvania's miscreants. Two centuries later, the 1960s brought rehabilitation into vogue, and clinical programs became the norm. Ever since, the two ideologies—religious conversion and clinical therapy—have maintained an uneasy co-existence. The IFI website sums up the difference between the two approaches in a handy chart: Therapy seeks "gradual change of self" while conversion endorses "instantaneous transformation." Therapy counsels that "problems in life may arise from past inability to have one's needs met;" for the converted, "all problems in life arise from a condition of sin."

The tensions play out as therapists and clergymen vie for the ultimate captive audience. Dr. Martin Atrops used to run a successful clinical rehabilitation program for sexual offenders at Meadow Creek Correctional Facility in Eagle River, Alaska, and his experience is illuminating.

"We had several disagreements with the chaplain," explains Atrops. " Not all of our prisoners were heterosexual. He led prisoners to believe that any other sexual orientation was completely inappropriate. But this is the sort of thing where the solution is not denial."

In a state with the fifth highest rate of sexual assault in the nation, not one of the men who have completed Atrops' program in the last five years has reoffended. Atrops predicts that the treatment has saved the state over $1 million in early releases. Yet Alaska's Department of Corrections deemed the program "ineffective" and slashed funding from the state budget. The new plan for Eagle River's 78 inmates? According to Portia Parker, Deputy Commissioner of Alaska's Department of Corrections, Alaska is currently considering a privately funded "faith-based pod" similar to one the state already runs in Arizona.

"I'm deeply concerned and very much alarmed," says Atrops. "You've got individuals with no credentials and no experience and no specialty who are going to be offering, in a sense, treatment. A lot of these problems have long histories that can't be solved this way."

Since the Alaskan proposal comes without a price tag, it is unlikely to encounter much resistance. But as Barry Lynn, director of AU, puts it, "the calculus changes legally and morally when you start using other people's money."

In Iowa, state money won from tobacco companies is channeled toward Prison Fellowship, an organization that aims to convert prisoners to fundamentalist Christianity through an intense, bible-centered curriculum known as the Innerchange Freedom Initiative.

The unlikely pairing of state funds and bible-study has roots in former Senator John Ashcroft's "charitable choice" provision, which was inserted into the 1996 Welfare Reform Act and facilitated state support for secular services provided by faith-based programs. Once in office, Bush issued an executive order known as the Faith-Based Initiative, thereby creating a bureaucracy with the sole purpose of providing support to faith-based providers of social services.

On the surface, the Faith-Based Initiative is a rational attempt at efficient allocation of funds. Bush's executive order outlines ground rules to maintain an ostensible separation between church and state. State funds are not to be used for "inherently religious" activities, and charities cannot turn away anyone on the basis of faith or require anyone to participate in religious activities. But the division between "inherently religious" activity and secular services in a religious setting is necessarily approximate; in the case of IFI, it is non-existent.

The IFI website is chock-full of promotional material and states repeatedly that "the application of biblical principles is not an agenda item—it is the agenda." Prison Fellowship president Mark Easley, who declined to comment for this story, has said that state monies are used only for "non-sectarian expenses." But it is not at all clear how a program with conversion as its stated aim can have non-sectarian expenses. If IFI's own materials are to be believed, any funds the program receives will support its self-proclaimed goal of Christian conversion.

While every aspect of the program includes religious instruction, IFI offers services that prisoners of any faith are likely to want—everything from mentoring programs to computer training to extensive after-care upon release. Prisoners are offered a choice—reject services that may be crucial to successful reintegration, or enter a pervasively religious program. The website states that prisoners should only apply if "willing to actively participate in a Christ-centered, biblically-based program." In its legal complaint against IFI, AU alleges that participants are actually evaluated on whether they are "quick to praise God" and "demonstrate a belief in Jesus Christ." This clearly defies the White House stipulation that state-funded programs not require participants to attend religious activities.

Nevertheless, the administration repeatedly cites IFI as a paradigm for state-funded religious organizations. Following a meeting between Bush and Colson last month, director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives Jim Towey announced the administration's plan to seek ways of expanding such programs. Attorney General John Ashcroft, always a creative interpreter of the Constitution, will be put in charge. The willingness of President Bush to overlook blatant violations of his own initiative suggests a particular view of church and state—a view in which the establishment clause is a technicality to be overcome. Colson himself has expressed surprise at the federal government's eagerness to fund IFI. After his meeting with the president, Colson told reporters "I didn't think he'd be willing to fight it through…all the church-state issues."

Even if state-supported Christian conversion could somehow be justified on the basis of results, the University of Pennsylvania study cited by the White House as proof of IFI's success is problematic. The study points to low recidivism rates, which IFI clearly delivers, but fails to provide a control group with similar secular benefits such as mentoring and education. IFI representatives claim that Christian values are central to the program's success, but the claim itself is based on faith.

AU's lawsuit is in pre-depositional stages; meanwhile, Bush's Faith-Based Initiative is in overdrive. Whether or not IFI survives the legal ordeals ahead, cash-strapped prisons are likely to turn increasingly toward religious conversion. But the transition from clinical therapy to Christian conversion is not merely the shifting of a burden from the public to the private sector; it is the replacement of one ideology with another. Lynn maintains that "the government should not be in the business of getting people right with Jesus." For as long as states are willing to define rehabilitation in terms of salvation, getting people right with the law may mean exactly that.