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