“Religion in Prisons–Now”

Tags: Constitutional Right to Religious Expression


Religion in Prisons–Then

This blog post is a continuation and extension of “Religion in Prisons—Then” (see above). I encourage you to review the introduction in that post regarding the close relationship between prisons and religion.  Religion has been important in prisons since their development, for two reasons: the right to religious expression and practice is a Constitutional Right; and religion has been recognized as beneficial to prisoners’ adjustment to the prison environment and for prisoners’ successful return to society after completing their prison sentence.

In the previous blog post I shared the first of two prisoners’ religious rights cases with which I have a close personal connection. The first case of Cruz v. Beto involved a former professor and mentor of mine and a prisoner plaintiff in a Texas prison located close to the criminal justice graduate school where I was studying.  The second case occurred some thirty years later and involved a faith-based prison program that I had visited (in a different state prison) as part of a research study.  This second federal court case also has special significance for me in my role as a Prison Fellowship volunteer in a program that meets constitutional guidelines for religious programming in a state institution.Prisoner2

Americans United v. Prison Fellowship Ministries 

In December 2006 a U.S. District Court Judge in Des Moines, Iowa found unconstitutional a faith-based, in-prison rehabilitation program that was operating in the Newton Prison Facility of the Iowa Department of Corrections.  The State of Iowa had contracted with Prison Fellowship Ministry to conduct the rehabilitation program called “InnerChange Freedom Initiative” (IFI) in the Newton prison. The lawsuit was brought by Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU).  The plaintiffs complained that the state’s contract with this religious organization to provide the rehabilitation program involved an establishment of religion and was thus in violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as applied to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment.  (Details of the case may be found at 432 F. Supp. 2d 832).  The plaintiffs, “Americans United,” viewed the court ruling as a victory and a strike against state-supported religion.  Prison Fellowship / IFI and their supporters viewed the final court judgments as support for religious liberty and the right to offer programs in other prisons.

    Dr. Winnifred F. Sullivan, Professor of Religion at Indiana University and Maurer School of Law, was called as an expert witness in the case.  Her summary of testimony and analysis of the case is invaluable for understanding the constitutionality of religious programs in prisons (see Prison Religion: Faith-Based Reform and the Constitution, Princeton University Press, 2009).


Good Intentions—but Unconstitutional

The InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI) program in the Iowa prison was modeled after the Prison Fellowship Ministry program begun by Charles Colson who was an assistant to former President Richard Nixon before serving time in a federal prison for illegal actions in the Watergate affair.  Based on his personal experience, Colson was convinced that prisoners’ lives could be changed more completely and effectively through a Christian intervention program.

Testimony from prisoners in the Newton Prison and from representatives of Prison Fellowship indicated that requirements of the program reflected what Sullivan describes as an evangelical Christian view that limited participation to prisoners who were willing to comply with that particular form of Christian beliefs, worship, and Bible reading.  Jewish and Muslim residents (though few in number) were not welcome in the program.  But even many Christian participants felt less than welcome.  A Roman Catholic prisoner for example described his feelings of exclusion at being told that his Catholic Bible (containing apocryphal and deuterocanonical books) was not appropriate for use in the IFI program.

Another prisoner was terminated from the program for refusing to sign the required statement of faith that held a position of “biblical inerrancy” and that the Bible was in general historically and scientifically true.   Required twice-weekly worship services, “revival meetings,” prayer services, Bible studies, and required personal testimonies of participants’ religious and spiritual experiences were some of the other elements of the IFI program in the Newton prison that led the Federal Judge to rule in favor of the plaintiffs.

The Iowa IFI program provided religious programming that they believed would instill positive changes and pro-social behavior to help released prisoners adjust to society and not return to prison.  Regardless of their good intentions, the Court ruled that the nature and requirements of the program violated the First Amendment clause against establishment of religion by a state agency.

Constitutionally Acceptable Religious Programs

Religious programs that meet constitutional guidelines can and are being conducted in federal and state institutions.  A Wisconsin federal court ruled in support of religious programs run by the National Chaplains Center of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).  The court in Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Nicholson [469 F. Supp. 2d 609 (W. Dist. Of Wisc., 2007)] ruled against the plaintiffs, finding that religious programming in VA facilities did not violate the religious establishment clause.

The Iowa prison program was shut down following the AU v. IFI case; but Prison Fellowship is operating several religious programs in other state prisons that comply with the First Amendment.  I studied one such program in Minnesota (“The InnerChange Freedom Initiative: A Faith-Based Prison Program,” presented at the Annual Meeting of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, Cincinnati, 2008).

The two key factors that distinguish the program from the unconstitutional Iowa program: (1) Voluntary and more inclusive participation; and (2) funding of paid in-prison staff by private donors rather than by the state.

Prison Fellowship programs to assist prisoners in pro-social change and responsible behavior are now called PF-Academy.”  They operate in prisons of 26 states and aim to serve prisons in all states by 2026.  Are they effective?  A study by the Minnesota Department of Corrections found that fewer than 1 percent of participants who successfully completed the program returned to prison, compared to an average recidivism rate of 40 percent of state prisoners.

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