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 sued.

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 discriminated against.

“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 principles.

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 applaud it.”

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 8%.

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.

Faith-Based Initiatives

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 prison.

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 constitutional problems.

“To operate under the law, InnerChange would have to make substantial changes that would make it unrecognizable from what it is today,” Luchenitser said.

“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.