Religion-in-prison movement

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The religion-in-prison movement

On May 23, 2004, Newsday correspondent John Riley announced that "Florida has the nation's first 'faith-based' prison as a trend to use religion in corrections grows."

Riley writes that "convicts, hard men--car thieves, batterers and burglars, drug dealers" have "their chapel ... on the grounds of Lawtey Correctional Institution in Florida, a 31-year-old jail off a desolate stretch of Highway 301 southwest of Jacksonville that since December [2003] has held the distinction of being the nation's first 'faith-based' prison."

"Lawtey is the latest experiment in a growing religion-in-prison movement pushed by Christian luminaries such as former Watergate cover-up figure Charles Colson that has gained a foothold in at least five states. And it has enthusiastic support in some very high places as well as low. President George W. Bush, [Florida governor Jeb Bush's brother], was an early advocate as governor of Texas and urged funding for faith-based prison initiatives in his State of the Union 2004 address," Riley writes.

"With a rich assortment of programs offered by church volunteers," Riley informs, "from Bible study and morning devotionals to evening services and evangelical preaching, it is dedicated to the proposition that spiritual transformation--filling a 'hollow heart' with 'the serenity that comes from faith in a higher being,' in the words of Gov. Jeb Bush--is one key to breaking the national cycle of rising prison populations, shrinking prison budgets and intractable recidivism rates."

Riley writes that "Lawtey is built on a religion-based prison programming model started in Brazil's prisons in the 1970s. The model - and its claimed successes in reducing recidivism--impressed Colson, who incorporated it into his Prison Fellowship Ministries, the Christian ministry he started after his own release from prison in 1975.

"Describing itself as a 'revolutionary, Christ centered, Bible-based' program, Colson's 'InnerChange Freedom Initiative' got its first foothold in Texas, where then-Gov. George W. Bush approved an InnerChange Freedom dorm at a prison near Houston in 1997. Since then, the program has contracted to run prison wings--sometimes called 'God pods'--in Minnesota, Kansas and Iowa as well."

Riley says that it's not a movement without "skeptical reviews in many quarters. Some critics complain of a dangerous breach of the church-state wall, and to others, it's an unproven approach to prisoner rehabilitation that can't possibly fill the gap left by underfunding of more traditional vocational and educational programs."

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