Bush plans Christian rehab in federal prisons
Encouraged by the apparent success of a Christian rehabilitation program in state prisons, the Bush administration is reportedly 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 that President Bush had asked Attorney General John Ashcroft to seek ways of expanding programs like those being run by Prison Fellowship Ministries.
Particular focus is on the "InnerChange" program which 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.
But 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 the 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.
There are however other programmes run by different organisations that cater for other faiths too.
A federal "pre-release" program called "Life Connections", is open to inmates of all faiths, unlike Colson's Texas scheme.
Life Connections strives to link inmates with volunteer "mentors" of their faith and with a corresponding faith-community ó whether Christian or non-Christian ó in their release destination.
But 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.
Opponents, alarmed by the momentum these programs are gaining in state prisons nationwide, charge that the programs effectively proselytize a captive population that has few other options for rehabilitation.
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.
Executive director of Americans United, Reverend Barry W. Lynn who filed the lawsuits last February said; "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 subsidised 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."
A two-year study, conducted between 2000 and 2002, shows that InnerChange graduates, when compared with a similar group of released inmates 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.
Opponents however point out that 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.