Christianity in the prison system

Posted: Feb 18, 2003 12:00 AM
America's prisons are often depicted by left-wing critics as a big business ("the prison-industrial complex") profiting on the basis of racism and cruelty. Along comes a program designed to soften prison's edges, and what's the response of one liberal group? To try to close it down with a lawsuit. Americans United for Separation of Church and State has filed two suits against a program in Iowa run by Prison Fellowship Ministries, an evangelical Christian group founded by former Nixon official Charles Colson after serving time for his role in Watergate. The program also operates in Minnesota, Kansas and Texas, and according to the suits is a standing affront to the Constitution. The program lasts 18 months and is a kind of moral boot camp for Christian prisoners prior to their release. They get job-skills training and drug treatment, but the focus is on a Christian worldview meant to transform the prisoners as persons. Is it a violation of church and state? Hardly. The program is entirely voluntary. The suits complain of special treatment for participants. But that isn't unusual. All sorts of programs in prison have incentives and privileges for those who participate in them. The states fund the nonreligious aspects of the program, but the dollars for the religious portion -- the bulk of it -- come from private sources. Rather than a forum for a constitutional food fight, Prison Fellowship is better understood as a possible meeting ground for a right-left consensus on criminal-justice issues. It is run by tough law-and-order types, from Pat Nolan, a former lock-them-up firebrand in the California state legislature, to Mark Earley, a former attorney general of Virginia, who had a role in passing legislation abolishing parole, allowing juveniles to be tried as adults and instituting Three Strikes and You're Out. The work they did throwing criminals in jail was indispensable and reflected an insight that had become so common-sensical by the 1990s that even Bill Clinton embraced it: The government should protect us by taking thugs off the streets. But the fact is that, even with tough sentencing, most inmates are going to be released. According to Earley, there are close to 2 million people in prison, and roughly 600,000 will be released this year. With recidivism rates higher than 60 percent, that is a formula for more crime -- which appears to be what the United States is beginning to experience. If anything, prisons make inmates more likely to continue, or enhance, their criminal careers. Many of them are horror pits of drugs and violence. "It's worse today than it's ever been," says Colson, "and I've been at this for 30 years." That, for instance, rape has become an accepted part of prison life and is considered a laughing matter is a national shame. This, then, would be the consensus: The left would admit that prisons are a necessary protection for society, while the right would become more attuned to running them in a civilized manner, and at least trying to make inmates better people. Enter Prison Fellowship. "Crime is a moral problem," says Nolan. "Unless we deal with the moral outlook of an inmate, we can't change permanently his behavior." Early returns from Texas, where the program has been running the longest, suggest dramatic results. The recidivism rates for participants is 8 percent, compared to 22 percent for a control group and roughly 60 percent for former inmates in general. The program is operative proof of the central theory of President Bush's compassionate conservatism: that religion can provide the impetus for transforming lives in ways that government programs simply can't. Eliminating religion from public life means forgoing an awesome force for good. Prison Fellowship, of course, won't end recidivism, but it is at least a small step. And why wouldn't liberals be the first to support a program that showers prisoners with love, and tries to give them hope? Love and hope should be desirable -- even if they happen to be associated with Christianity.