Jesus in the Jailhouse

Old-time religion confronts 21st-century Texas prisons: Does it work, and is it constitutional?

Several years later, in 2005, Bush stood before another group of religious leaders, this time in a ballroom at a Washington, D.C. hotel. "It is said that faith can move mountains," he said. "Here in Washington, D.C., those helping the poor and needy often run up against a big mountain called bureaucracy. And I'm here to talk about how to move that mountain so that we can partner with programs to reach out to people who hurt."

In the past year, Bush announced, his administration had awarded $2 billion in grants to faith-based programs, the most the federal government had given in one year to religious charities.

Not everyone was pleased. When Bush made the announcement, a number of lawsuits were in the works that challenged the constitutionality of his faith-based initiative. One of those lawsuits took direct aim at InnerChange.

The Carol S. Vance Unit near Houston, Texas, uses the InnerChange Freedom Initiative program in an attempt to reduce recidivism rates.
AP/Wide World Photo
The Carol S. Vance Unit near Houston, Texas, uses the InnerChange Freedom Initiative program in an attempt to reduce recidivism rates.
Chuck Colson, the Watergate felon turned born-again Christian, founded Prison Fellowship Ministries in 1976.
Chuck Colson, the Watergate felon turned born-again Christian, founded Prison Fellowship Ministries in 1976.

The suit, filed by a group called Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, specifically targeted InnerChange in Iowa, the only state that had agreed to pay Prison Fellowship to run the program. In other states the program is funded by private donations. The suit had two main arguments: that the IFI program was discriminatory, and that in sponsoring it, the state of Iowa was promoting one form of religion over another, a violation of the First Amendment.

It argued that participants in the program were given special benefits not available to other inmates and that the real goal of the program was not to lower recidivism rates but to convert people to Christianity.

As evidence, it introduced a fund-raising letter from Prison Fellowship founder Chuck Colson that read: "We don't run IFI to reduce recidivism rates...We run this program so that through the Gospel, people's lives might be that the world around us will see the transforming power of Jesus Christ and be drawn to accept him as Lord."

According to the lawsuit, participants in the program were taught what is widely considered a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible—wives should be subservient to their husbands, homosexuality is a sin and non-Christian religions are "of Satan."

As evidence, Americans United entered the diary of a program participant. "Today we had some serious Catholic bashing in class," the diary read. "It hurt me very deeply. Never before had I heard serious criticism toward my faith."

The participant, Michael A. Bauer, would quit the program after a year because he felt IFI staff were hostile to his Roman Catholic beliefs. On one occasion, he said, they compared the Pope to Hitler and told him if he didn't leave the Catholic church he would burn in hell. Members of other minority faiths—including Jews, Mormons and Wiccans—had similar complaints. One Muslim inmate said if he were to participate in the program he would be committing blasphemy, according to the suit.

IFI classes, regardless of the subject matter, were buttressed by biblical principles, and religious references were constant, sometimes every few minutes, even in computer classes. "The application of biblical principles is not an agenda item," the IFI Web site stated. "It is the agenda."

Homework assignments dealt with Christian doctrine, and inmates were required to memorize Bible verses, attend morning devotionals, afternoon worship services and Friday night revivals. In a class called "Praise and Worship," inmates were taught the proper way to pray, the suit alleged.

Participants in the program also received special benefits not offered to other Iowa prisoners, the suit said. Their cells, for example, had wooden doors that could be locked. They had access to private bathrooms, while inmates in general population squatted in toilets side by side. They were also allowed more visitors, given prison jobs and had easier access to treatment programs that would put them on the fast track to parole.

In October 2005, the suit went to trial. During opening arguments, Americans United lawyer Alex Luchenitser told the court that the true nature of the InnerChange program was undeniable. "InnerChange has taken over an entire unit of a state prison and turned it into an evangelical church," he said.

Robert W. Pratt, chief judge of the federal courts in the Southern District of Iowa, agreed with the claims brought by Americans United. He noted that inmates of other religions were asked "to compromise, if not completely abandon, their faiths in order to participate." In giving participants of the program benefits not available to other Iowa inmates, the state had violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. He ordered Prison Fellowship to repay the state of Iowa the $1.5 million it had spent on the program.

Prison Fellowship appealed the ruling, and the case is now before the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis, a three-member panel that includes former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

"The whole lawsuit is full of allegations that we disagree with," Earley says. "Our big contention with the case in general was that the decision was not based upon what actually occurred in the program in Iowa, but what was really based on allegations of what occurred in Iowa, and really more based on the fact that the program had a Christian emphasis.

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