New Report on U.S. Prisons Highlights Need for Reforms

Following a judge's decision to stop Prison Fellowship's work with inmates in Iowa, the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons released a report Thursday detailing the abuse and violence in America's jails and prisons and the impact on public safety.

Even before the title page of the report - Confronting Confinement - the Commission stated, "What happens inside jails and prisons does not stay inside jails and prisons. It comes home with prisoners after they are released and with corrections officers at the end of each day's shift. We must create safe and productive conditions of confinement not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it influences the safety, health and prosperity of us all."

Five members of the Commission, including Pat Nolan, president of Prison Fellowship's Justice Fellowship, testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Corrections and Rehabilitation as they presented the report along with recommendations in addressing the dangerous conditions of confinement.

Speaking from experience after serving 29 months in federal custody in 1994, Nolan described imprisonment as being an "amputee."

"I was cut off from my family, my friends, my work, my church, and my community," he said in a released statement. "Then, with my stumps still bleeding, I was tossed into a rolling cauldron of anger, bitterness, despair, and often violence."

Some of the report's key findings revealed that violence against prisoners and staff is a problem in too many places, poor medical and mental healthcare inside correctional facilities, and line officers, wardens and system directors frequently lack the resources and support to meet the extensive demands of the job.

The release of the report comes when a ministry's prison program at an Iowa correctional facility was ruled as a violation of the First Amendment's freedom of religion clause on June 2. U.S. District Judge Robert Pratt of Des Moines ordered Prison Fellowship's InnerChange Freedom Initiative to be closed and $1.5 million in state funds to be repaid.

"The decision fosters a 'lock 'em up and throw away the key' approach to fighting crime," said Mark Earley, president and CEO of Prison Fellowship in a written statement. "It assumes by warehousing criminals and providing no services to help them change, that society will be safer when they get out. Nothing could be further from the truth."

Confronting Confinement, compiled over the course of a year, made recommendations for practical reforms including a re-investment in programming for prisoners to prevent violence inside facilities and reduce recidivism after release.

InnerChange Freedom Initiative is a faith-based Reentry Program that was started in 1997 with a mission to create and maintain a prison environment that fosters respect for God's law and rights of others and to encourage the spiritual and moral regeneration of prisoners. Preliminary studies have shown the program to drastically reduce the number of former inmates returning to prison.

Anyone of any faith who participates in the voluntary program can choose to stop at any time, Earley had told Baptist Press. And State prison officials in Iowa said they hired the religious group to improve inmate behavior and reduce recidivism - not promote Christianity, according to The Associated Press.

Prison Fellowship plans to appeal last week’s Iowa court ruling that gave the ministry 60 days to shut down its program. Earley believes that the decision will be overturned to protect the rights of all Americans, including those in prison.