Christian Prison Rehab Case Places Focus Religion, Recidivism, Social Services

A trial focusing on the legality of a Christian-based prison rehabilitation program in Iowa is calling attention not only to questions about church-state separation, but also the goal of keeping inmates from returning to jail and the future of faith-based initiatives.

A 2002 government study by the Department of Justice found that over two thirds of all convicts in the United States released from prison were rearrested within three years of their release and over half were back in prison after the same amount of time.

Faith-based programs for inmates to address such issues are widely available around the nation, said Mark Earley President of Prison Fellowship, which runs InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI) – the faith-based prison program being sued.

“There’s a tremendous amount of religious programming in prisons across the United States,” the former Virginia State Attorney General told The Christian Post. “Many states pay for chaplains of many different faiths. Prisoners have religious freedom, and they can choose the kinds of programs they want to be involved in.”

A 2003, six-year study funded by Prison Fellowship that was carried out by the University of Pennsylvania found that 8 percent of prisoners who completed a 22-month pre and post-release prison rehabilitation program returned to prison, compared to 20 percent from a group that did not participate. However, 58 percent of those who had initially taken part in the program dropped out.

According to its website, through Prison Fellowship’s biblical approach, “states will realize a spectacular reduction in the rate ex-offenders are returned to prison.”
In contrast, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State – a group that is providing legal counsel to the Iowa prisoner suing Prison Fellowship – says in its website that that an analysis of the study by a University of California professor shows that if the dropouts to the program were included in the study, the recidivism rate would be slightly higher than the control group’s. Americans United also contends that the program primarily exists to further evangelical Christianity.

Earley, however, says there is no “religious litmus test” for prisoners, adding that anyone can participate and that the program is entirely voluntary. He says that inmates have a 30-day orientation prior to starting the program to decide if it suits them. During that time, it is made clear to prospective participants that they must be willing to participate in the program and that it is a faith-based program based on Christian biblical teachings.

The funding for the non-religious aspects of the InnerChange program is coming from state of Iowa, while donations are used for the religious aspects, states the InnerChange site. Additionally, employees and volunteers in the program, including small-group facilitators, mentors, tutors and biblical counselors are required to be Christians, according to the site.

The Center for Public Justice, a Washington-based group engaged in developing public policy and civic education, argues that the government should not be allowed to exclude religious groups from obtaining government contracts to provide social services even if the programs are overtly religious.

At a lecture entitled “Keeping the Faith in the Faith-base Initiative: From Formal Neutrality to Full Pluralism in Government Partnerships with Faith-Based Social Services," Director of Social Policy, Dr. Stanley Carlson-Thies argued that religious social service groups should be allowed to maintain their religious character when competing for government contracts.

He said that increasingly faith-based providers, those seeking help, officials and some scholars say that religion is not irrelevant to the social assistance being provided, but what makes those programs effective.

Americans United also cites religious freedom as the reason to keep faith-based programs separate from government funds. In a paper called "The 'Faith-Based' Initiative: Churches Social Services & Your Tax Dollars," it argues that some may feel pressured to participate in religious activities in facilities funded by the government. Americans United also says in the paper that forcing tax payers to subsidize a religion they may not believe in is the same as forcing them to place money in the collection plates of houses of worship, regardless of what religion they may be.

The prison rehabilitation program case is expected to last through the first week of November.