A Critique of Faith-Based Prison Programs
Jablecki, Lawrence T., The Humanist
"Faith-based prisons" are the latest fad in a significant number of states' criminal justice systems, and their growth is an egregious threat to the constitutional democracy that George W. Bush, upon ascending to the U.S. presidency, swore to defend and protect. These programs are supported by state revenue distributed directly or indirectly to sectarian religious organizations for the ostensible goals of rehabilitation and reduction of recidivism. And Bush's commitment to such a theologically driven and pessimistic view of the impotency of government to cure our nation's social ills is allowing the continuation of enormous harm to the public interest.
During his tenure as Texas governor, Bush spawned the "faith-based agenda"--his plan to cure the United States' social ills through the ministries of religious organizations. It started in 1996 when he appointed a sixteen-member Governor's Advisory Task Force on Faith-based Community Service Groups. The product of this group was a report called Faith in Action: A New Vision for Church-State Cooperation in Texas. The following year Bush used this document to justify establishing "The Inner Change Freedom Initiative" program in the Carol Vance prison unit, a male facility of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
This program was the brainchild of Chuck Colson, the Watergate convict-cum-evangelical Christian and founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries. A concise statement of the substance of this program in the February 2003 evaluation report of the Texas Criminal Justice Policy Council states:
The program was designed to facilitate the life transformation of the member eliminating the thinking process which resulted in his incarceration and to rebuild the member's value system, establishing a solid foundation for productive growth.... a three phase program involving prisoners in 16 to 24 months of in-prison biblical programming and 6-12 months of aftercare while on parole. The different program phases focus on biblical education, life skills, community service, leadership and personal faith.
The report further reveals that the initial project involved approximately two hundred beds in a separate wing of the Vance Unit. No sex offenders, murderers, or inmates convicted of aggravated assault were allowed to volunteer for the program. The outcome of this highly restrictive list of eligibility criteria was that the participants were basically medium- to low-risk drug offenders. In April 1997 the initial group of 141 volunteers "hand selected" by administrators of Colson's organization entered the program.
Financial backing for the program reportedly came largely from Colson's Prison Fellowship Ministries, a not-for-profit organization that provided "funding to cover the salaries and benefits of program staff, the costs of Bible-based instructional and educational materials, and staff and volunteer training, materials and expenses." The Texas Department of Criminal Justice covered "security and day-to-day operating costs of the Vance Unit, including inmate support costs such as food, medical services and clothing."
Impressed by the apparent number of successful "graduates" who were released into the community and didn't recidivate, in 2001 the Seventy-seventh Texas Legislature, without a request from Colson, appropriated $1.5 million to expand the program. That not a single penny of this money was actually used can probably be attributed to Article 1, Section 7, of the Texas Constitution concerning Appropriations for Sectarian Purposes, which states: "No money shall be appropriated or drawn from the Treasury for the benefit of any sect, or religious society, theological or religious seminary; nor shall property belonging to the State be appropriated for any such purposes," In 2003 the Seventy-eighth Texas Legislature was obliged to make deep cuts in the state's budget and the $1. …