A Jailhouse Conversion

Mark A. Kellner September/October 2003
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At first it seems ironic, if not downright ridiculous: a federal lawsuit seeks to block funding of an Iowa prison program that in Texas has resulted in a nearly two-thirds decrease in the recidivism rate of released convicts.
The program doesn't use controversial drugs, esoteric psychology, or Clockwork Orange-style machinery to change prisoners' behavior. Instead, it relies on the persuasive power of Christian evangelism, and the transforming power of Christian faith, to work what prison observers routinely call miracles. With all the good that is reportedly being done, who'd want to stop that? Jerry D. Ashburn, an inmate at the Newton Correctional Facility in Newton, Iowa, for one. Ashburn, in a court filing, is described as someone who "does not subscribe to the religious beliefs taught at his institution's InnerChange Freedom Initiative program, which mirrors the one in Texas, and is also administered by Prison Fellowship Ministries, founded by notorious Watergate felon, and evangelical Christian, Charles W. Colson." InnerChange currently operates in Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, and Texas, while a similar program is being weighed for use in the federal prison system as well. President George W. Bush, who was governor of Texas when InnerChange began operations there, is said to be a fan of Colson and his work.

Some background: Colson, whose preincarceration conversion was detailed in his best-selling book, Born Again, has campaigned tirelessly for prison reform since his release from a federal penitentiary. At the same time, Prison Fellowship has won wide accolades for helping both prisoners and their family members. The group's annual Angel Tree collections of toys and clothing for the children of inmates is one noted example of Colson's concern.

Over the years Colson has made a specialty of visiting inmates in prisons around the world—more than 600 prisons in more than 40 countries by his own count—and working with prison chaplains and volunteers to help inmates find a solution to the problems that brought them to jail in the first place. Ex-offenders who receive counsel and help from PF, as the group is known, often report a Christian conversion. For those interested, Colson's ministry supplies information, study materials, and other help in establishing a relationship with Jesus Christ.

For the bulk of its existence, PF has been funded chiefly by private donations, and its programs have existed largely outside prison walls. In the mid-1990s some elements of the PF work began to change, and it is those changes that apparently have led to the recent lawsuits over the InnerChange Freedom Initiative program, also known as IFI. How those changes are evaluated in court could lead to interesting consequences for both prison inmates and the society that has to deal with them.

At issue in the Ashburn suit, which the prisoner filed with the assistance of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, is whether government can fund, in whole or in part, a program designed to inculcate a specific religious doctrine in adherents.

The issues are complex on some levels. A continuing crime problem in the United States has led many citizens to call for something—anything, perhaps—to stop the revolving door cycle of prisoners going back onto the streets and committing more crimes. Longer mandatory sentences and "three strikes" laws are two solutions states have tried. Programs such as IFI from Prison Fellowship are another.

In the InnerChange Freedom Initiative program, inmates are exposed to a daily, nearly continuous presentation of evangelical Christian tenets and beliefs, along with strong urgings to embrace such practices. IFI courses are structured to emphasize both practical living skills and Christian theology.

Begun in a Houston, Texas, prison, IFI appears to achieve results. According to former Virginia state attorney general Mark Earley, the University of Pennsylvania has completed an evaluation of the Texas InnerChange Freedom Initiative program due for release in the spring of 2003. "This research, conducted over the past six years, will provide significant evidence that faith-based prison rehabilitation programs are not only effective, but also have significant advantages over comparable secular programs in helping inmates to successfully return to society," Earley said in a statement released by the PF group.

Prison Fellowship founder Colson, after an early visit to the Newton, Iowa, facility, was glowing in his account of the transformation wrought by IFI: "The clean units reflect the pride these men take in their prison. They have a sense of purpose—people are busy with work or classes from early morning to lights out. There is little time for TV or lying around on bunks.

"They are building community, helping one another, and willingly obeying the rules," he wrote in a July 2000 column in Christianity Today magazine.
But should a state government—committed by law to religious neutrality—fund a decidedly doctrinaire program?

Ashburn, who in the lawsuit is described as a member of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a group known in recent years as the Community of Christ, said the IFI program would force him to abandon practices and beliefs taught in his church. The lawsuit also claims that IFI will admit only those inmates who acknowledge that this is a "Christ-centered" program aimed at fostering religious conversion. Although IFI claims to allow members of nonevangelical Christian faiths access to its program and the ability to attend religious services of their own choosing, such attendance can happen only if such service times do not conflict with IFI programming, the suit alleges.

All this adds up, Ashburn and his lawyers claim, to a violation of both the United States Constitution's establishment clause as well as the Iowa state constitution, which has a similar clause of its own: Article I, Section 3, of the Iowa constitution states, "The general assembly shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; nor shall any person be compelled to attend any place of worship, pay tithes, taxes, or other rates for building or repairing places of worship, or the maintenance of any minister, or ministry."

But if the IFI program is voluntary—as PF's Earley claims—where's the compulsion? In part, Ashburn asserts, by limiting IFI to those willing to be Christians of a certain evangelical stripe. More worrisome to separationists is that to fund the IFI program, the Iowa Department of Corrections, or DOC, uses money collected from high-priced telephone calls inmates make, money supposedly designed to benefit the entire prisoner population.

According to Ashburn's court filing, "Phone service in Iowa correctional facilities is provided and operated by a state agency called the Iowa Communications Network (ICN). The charges imposed on inmates for telephone calls are far greater than the costs incurred by the ICN and the DOC in connection with the calls. The State thus makes substantial profits on inmate telephone calls. The State places these profits in the Inmate Telephone Rebate Fund. By law, the DOC is required to use all funds deposited in the Inmate Telephone Rebate Fund for the benefit of inmates. However, since the InnerChange program began, a substantial portion of the funds placed in the Inmate Telephone Rebate Fund has been spent on the InnerChange program."
According to Americans United executive director Barry W. Lynn, "it is unconscionable for the government to give preferential treatment to prisoners based solely on their willingness to undergo religious conversion and indoctrination. Officials should use public funds to help rehabilitate all prison inmates, not just those who are willing to convert to fundamentalist Christianity."

Other objections to the InnerChange program raise equally troubling constitutional concerns. The suit alleges that InnerChange hires only those willing to subscribe to its statement of faith, which in turn is a violation of the establishment clause. And because inmates in the InnerChange program have nicer prison facilities than those who are not in the program—as well as greater access to parole application support—the suit contends that the InnerChange effort establishes a religious test for prisoner rehabilitation.

In a statement released by Prison Fellowship, Earley, now president of the group, said he expects to defeat the arguments raised in the Ashburn suit, as well as a companion action from Americans United against PF. "It is my hope that these suits will be dismissed quickly. InnerChange Freedom Initiative is committed to the transformation of the lives of prisoners to the benefit of themselves, their families, and, ultimately, society," Earley said. (See Liberty article on page 11.)

The issue, however, may not end with Iowa's prisons. According to the Americans United group, the growing acceptance of InnerChange in various states, and its potential backing by the federal government, could increase the hazy relationship of a supposedly neutral state with so-called faith-based social services programs.
"These cases have substantial implications for President Bush's faith-based initiative," said Ayesha Khan, Americans United's legal director. "The president says it's OK 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."
Article Author: Mark A. Kellner