IN THE NEWS
The Washington Posts is reporting on Sunday that U.S. District Judge Robert W. Pratt has ruled that a Christian rehabilitation program in Iowa is unconstitutional. Peter Slevin, a writer for the Washington Post wrote:
Interested inmates at Newton Correctional Facility in Iowa receive teaching material that declares: "Criminal behavior is a manifestation of an alienation between the self and God. Acceptance of God and Biblical principles results in cure through the power of the Holy Spirit. Transformation happens through an instantaneous miracle; it then builds the prisoner up with familiarity of the Bible."
Rooted in evangelical Christianity and supported by more than $1.5 million in public funds, the method of the rehabilitation program is clear enough. A key question is its constitutionality. A trio of appellate judges, including former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, is reviewing a lower court's decision that the program violates the separation of church and state.
U.S. District Judge Robert W. Pratt sided with Americans United, ruling last year that the Iowa program is "pervasively sectarian." He heard testimony from prisoners of other faiths who felt unwelcome in a program that gives advantages to inmates who accept the intensive religious teachings.
While in the program, prisoners are expected to pray daily, attend worship services and religious gatherings, and participate in weekly revival meetings. Inmates of other religions are asked "to compromise, if not completely abandon, their faiths in order to participate," Pratt ruled, citing "a constant tension" with Roman Catholic inmates.
Pratt ordered InnerChange to close its operations and repay $1.5 million to the Iowa government and prisoners whose telephone surcharges helped fund the program. He said he was careful not to pass judgment on the beliefs of the staff or the effectiveness of the religious approach, although he said he had received no credible data on recidivism rates.
His central concern, Pratt wrote, was whether the program violates the Constitutional prohibition on government showing a preference for any religious denomination.
Iowa "hopes to cure recidivism through state-sponsored prayer and devotion," wrote Pratt, 59, a Clinton appointee. "While such spiritual and emotional 'rewiring' may be possible in the life of an individual and lower the risk of committing other crimes, it cannot be permissible to force taxpayers to fund such an enterprise under the Establishment Clause."
I have mixed feelings on this issue. Charging prisoners a telephone surcharge to sponsor the program is wrong because not all prisoners participate in the program and not all prisoners receive the benefits from the money they pay in the form of a surcharge.
However, religious programs in prison help prisoners find hope and meaning in life. I have seen what happens when prisoners turn their lives to Christ and apply biblical principles to their lives.
While I was a seminary student, I served as an assistant chaplain at St. Quentin State Prison and at Soledad State Prison, two maximum prisons in California. Those who turned to Christ and made a habit (and a good one) of praying and reading the Bible every day, changed their lives and, once out of prison, turned away from a life of crime. A former prisoner even went to Japan as a missionary.
Most government programs have failed to rehabilitate prisoners. The number of inmates in American prisons has grown astronomically, the rate of recidivism has increased is the past few years and now, the courts are stopping one of the few programs that really works.
This is what happens in the secular society in which you and I live.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
Tag: Prison Ministry