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Trial concludes in case against Prison Fellowship’s faith-based rehab program

DES MOINES, Iowa (BP)–After a six-week trial, a lawsuit filed by Americans United for Separation of Church and State against a Prison Fellowship-sponsored rehabilitation program awaits a federal judge’s ruling.

Americans United contended that Prison Fellowship’s InnerChange Freedom Initiative, a faith-based rehab program at Iowa’s Newton Correctional Facility, unconstitutionally merges religion and government.

Prison Fellowship and prison officials countered that the InnerChange program has shown positive results in bettering the lives of inmates, especially those being paroled and returned to society.

“I think this is an extraordinarily important lawsuit because it raises so many of the issues involved in so-called faith-based programs at the national and state level all over the country,” Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told the Des Moines Register.

Americans United contended that the InnerChange program, which draws 40 percent of its funding from the state, should not be receiving government funding. Prison Fellowship noted that public funds only pay for nonsectarian parts of the program and that no tax dollars support its religious components. They pointed out that much of the curriculum, such as lifestyle skills training, study of business acumen and computer classes, is not drawn from the Bible.

Pratt personally visited the Iowa InnerChange program Nov. 4.

In addition to the Iowa prison, the InnerChange Freedom Initiative is in operation at prisons in Kansas, Minnesota and Texas and is scheduled to begin in Arkansas and another state, which Prison Fellowship has not yet identified, in 2006.

More than 2 million people are serving time in America’s prisons, according to Prison Fellowship. Of the 700,000 offenders who return to society each year, approximately 67 percent will be re-arrested; at least 50 percent go back to prison for committing new crimes within three years.

Robert Robinson, an ex-offender from the Newton facility and an InnerChange graduate, was among the witnesses who testified in behalf of the program in the final week of the trial.

Robinson told the court that he had been a self-absorbed, twice-imprisoned drug dealer. But since finishing the InnerChange program and gaining parole earlier this year, he has gotten married and has held a good-paying job as a welder with Vermeer Manufacturing Co., an international corporation in Pella, Iowa, that produces industrial, environmental and agricultural equipment.

Sam Dye, national InnerChange director, also was among those who testified during the trial.

Americans United contended that the InnerChange program discriminates against Catholics, Muslims, Jews and other faiths because it promotes the dominant themes of evangelical Christianity. But program organizers said prisoners who participate do so voluntarily and the values-based training isn’t forced on them. For instance, Catholic prisoners who join are allowed to attend Mass and carry rosaries. Participants can leave the program at any time.

“We don’t ask people to identify their religious background or if they have a religious background,” Dye told Baptist Press.

“… When we are asked, ‘How many Jews have you had, how many Muslims have you had?’ we would not know that unless the prisoners disclosed that knowledge on their own.”

Before offenders are allowed into the 18- to 24-month program, they must take an introductory class in which they learn about InnerChange’s daily routine, the phases of the initiative and that it is taught from a Christian perspective. Though the program’s core values are based on Scripture, prisoners are not required to profess a belief in the Gospel.

“We’re a values-based program teaching a core set of values that are common to man,” Dye said. Offenders learn about how to apply values such as responsibility, productivity, integrity, affirmation and restoration, which are common themes to most doctrines of faith, he said.

“Our values are the same values that anyone else would want these guys to have,” Dye noted. “We are presenting those values through the paradigm of a Christian worldview. That’s really the core piece of the program. When you come out, we want you to be honest and responsible. We want you to be accountable. We want you to be productive.”

Graduates of the Iowa InnerChange program, since 1999, have recidivism rates of 6 percent after one year and 10 to 12 percent after two years, bettering the state’s average of 33 to 50 percent, according to Prison Fellowship. A 2002 Texas study showed that faith-based prison programs result in a substantially lower rate of re-arrest than vocation-based programs -– 16 percent versus 36 percent.

“One of the important things is to realize this is a program that mobilizes hundreds of volunteers from across the state,” Dye told Baptist Press. “All of the evening classes are delivered by those volunteers. On any given week, we’ll have between 40 and 70 volunteers come into the prison to work with guys. And then we have anywhere from 100 to 200 people that are working outside the prison with guys. Some lead small groups, some are mentors establishing individual relationships with a prisoner before he’s on the street so he can continue that relationship with him once he’s out.”

    About the Author

  • James Patterson