A Captive Audience for Salvation ; A For-Profit Prison Company Stirs Hope - and Church-State Issues - Pursuing Partnerships with Evangelical Christian Ministries

Article excerpt

America has the highest incarceration level in the world, and its prisons serve too consistently as revolving doors. Are faith-based programs in prisons the answer to these disturbing trends?

The largest private company running prisons and jails in the United States, Corrections Corporation of America, thinks so. CCA has embarked on a major initiative to expand such programs in all 63 facilities it operates under contract with local, state, and federal governments.

"These programs give inmates hope and prepare them to be different people," says John Lanz, CCA's director of industry and special programs.

While the ambitious approach wins kudos from some inmates, other people question its constitutionality.

Though not directly supported by President Bush's faith-based initiative, CCA's program poses the same questions about how to encourage positive change in people's lives without privileging one form of religion with taxpayer dollars. Some also see potential political ramifications.

CCA provides for a variety of religious services in each facility, as required by law. But in addition, it has formed partnerships with eight national Evangelical Christian ministries under which CCA provides annual financial contributions and sets up franchise-style operations within facilities.

"We had chaplains and religious services, but I saw we didn't take full advantage of resources these national ministries provided, and they were having [legal] difficulties in state and federal facilities," says Mr. Lanz. "As a private company, we could knock down the barriers."

Critics say those barriers shouldn't come down. Religious programming per se - which can benefit both prisoners and the prison environment - is not at issue, but showing preference for a particular religion is. The partnerships do that, they suggest, especially when they include residential "pods" where one faith message structures the living situation, and benefits are available that others don't get.

In a case unrelated to CCA, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State has challenged in court the Inner Change program run in an Iowa prison by Charles Colson's Prison Fellowship. Results of that trial are due any day.

CCA says funding groups using company profits makes it legal, but others argue that since CCA acts for the government in running facilities, it cannot support a particular religious message.

"In the corrections context, CCA would be treated as if it is a 'state actor,' " says Robert Tuttle, a law professor at George Washington University and an expert on faith-based program issues.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation of Madison, Wis., and its New Mexico members recently filed a federal lawsuit against the state and CCA over programming at the women's prison in Grants, N.M. FFRF says the Life Principles program in the "faith pod" there is fundamentalist Christian and teaches the women submission to male authority.

"This is a flagrant endorsement of religion," says Annie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. "We consider this a nationally significant lawsuit because they are the major private provider of prison services ... and have openly said they want to franchise this."

The company contends it's on safe ground because programs are voluntary and inmates don't have to convert; it developed a checklist for detention facilities to follow, which it says will ensure they are meeting First Amendment requirements.

Ms. Gaylor disagrees: "They are being told that the only way they can be rehabilitated is through Jesus Christ, so it's a mind game even if they say you don't have to convert."

Volunteering in prison is a complicated question, Professor Tuttle says. Do some make choices they think officials or parole boards favor?

Studies don't support program effectiveness

Along with issues of taxpayer funding of a religious message, there are questions of religious programs' efficacy in prison. …