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It’s not every day that a program comes along that reduces prison recidivism. But court action has put a damper on one — because it’s faith-based.
BY MARK SULLIVANREGISTER CORRESPONDENT
ST. LOUIS — On its face, the idea for the program sounded
good to many: Reduce recidivism by giving prisoners a direction in life.
But the organization running the program, Prison Fellowship,
was faith-based, and a group concerned with the separation of church and state
Prison Fellowship is asking the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals
to review a decision made by three of its judges Dec. 3 — that the state of
Iowa violated U.S. and Iowa constitutions by funding the program InnerChange
but not providing a similar secular program.
Prison Fellowship had declared a partial victory in the Dec.
3 ruling because the court ruled that it did not have to repay the $1.5 million
it had received from the state of Iowa for running the program since 1999.
The lawsuit was brought by Americans United for the
Separation of Church and State on behalf of inmates who claimed they were being
“In the lawsuit, we uncovered discrimination against
Catholics,” said Alex Luchenitser, attorney for Americans United for the
Separation of Church and State. “There was a person involved with InnerChange
who compared the Pope to Hitler.”
InnerChange has also made Catholics involved in prison
ministry uncomfortable with its strong evangelical Protestant influence.
“My concern has been it’s difficult for Catholic inmates to
fully exercise their faith in an environment like that. For us, worship is not
complete without the Mass,” said Deacon Sam Dunning, who oversees social
justice programs in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. InnerChange has a
program in the archdiocese, but Dunning hasn’t received any complaints.
According to Mark Earley, president of Prison Ministries,
InnerChange is open to all prisoners who want to change their lives, regardless
of religious denominations. He said that Catholics are given the opportunity to
go to Mass. InnerChange is very clear that the program is based on Christian
If there is anti-Catholicism at Prison Fellowship, it
doesn’t come from the top. Prison Fellowship Ministries founder Charles Colson
helped found the ecumenical group Evangelicals and Catholics Together, and the
chairman of the board, Mike Timmis, is Catholic. And Earley is up-front about
the program’s efforts to weed out anti-Catholicism.
“We’ve had volunteers who have been anti-Catholic, and when
we’ve gotten complaints we’ve dealt with them. We’re not going to have any of
that because that’s not who we are,” Early said.
“Our vision is that God is raising up a whole new generation
of leaders for the church and the community from behind prison walls — men and
women who society has written off and says have no hope,” Early continued. “Yet
God says, ‘Let me show what my grace and my mercy can do with people who you
think have no hope.’”
“Any time you bring Christ into the mix, it’s certainly
going to bring peace in any kind of environment,” said Deacon Dunning. “I
The root of the problem is that half of the prisoners
released each year are back in prison in less than three years.
In their recent document, “Forming Consciences for Faithful
Citizenship,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) reiterated the
Church’s position on prison reform.
“An ethic of responsibility, rehabilitation and restoration
should be a foundation for the reform of a broken criminal justice system,” the
bishops write (No. 85). “A remedial, rather than a strictly punitive, approach
to offenders should be developed.”
Studies by the state of Texas and the University of
Pennsylvania have shown that the InnerChange program has lowered recidivism to
Earley said that the key to InnerChange is establishing a
community where prisoners who want to change can live together and receive almost
around the clock spiritual, professional and human formation for 18 to 24
months, and six weeks to a year after they leave prison.
But what InnerChange calls “community,” Americans United for
Separation of Church and State calls unconstitutional.
“We see a host of constitutional problems. Inmates get
special benefits such as better housing, more contact with their family,
special computer access and professional training as a reward for their
participation in this program. It amounts to religious indoctrination by the
state,” Luchenitser said.
Luchenitser also questions whether InnerChange really works.
“Only inmates who finished the program were measured instead
of all those who participated,” he said. “They expel inmates that have a higher
risk of going back. They cherry-pick.”
Earley agreed that the 8% recidivism rate is lower than the
control group, which was 22%, and both figures are lower than 50%, which
reflects that some inmates are naturally more motivated not to go back to
After the initial federal court decision that required
InnerChange to return the money they had received, InnerChange has decided to
stop accepting public money. Even so, Luchenitser said that doesn’t solve the
“To operate under the law, InnerChange would have to make
substantial changes that would make it unrecognizable from what it is today,”
“Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” also calls
for Catholics to support faith-based initiatives.
“Faith-based groups deserve recognition, not as a substitute
for government, but as responsive, effective partners, especially in the
poorest communities. USCCB … opposes any effort to undermine the ability of
faith-based groups to preserve their identity and integrity as partners with
government (No. 78).”
Do Catholic inmates compromise their faith by entering a
non-Catholic, but Christian, program?
Said Deacon Dunning: “The questions that come out of it are
a challenge to the Catholic community to step into the breach.”
Mark Sullivan writes from Pittsburgh.