May 3, 2006 – The latest Bush administration attempt to infuse faith into the public sector is coming under fire by secular-government advocates.
The administration plans to grant $3 million to private contractors to develop inmate rehabilitation programs centered on a single faith. The programs will be located in cell blocks of select prisons, populated by prisoners who choose to participate. Contractors would provide a number of services to prisoners, including mentors during and after incarceration, and connections to religious communities, neighborhood organizations or support groups upon release.
The group Americans United for Separation of Church and State publicly blasted the proposal this week, saying it violates the US Constitution by promoting one religion over other religions and favoring spiritual over secular programs.
"This proposal on its face is plainly unconstitutional," the groupâ€™s executive director, Rev. Barry W. Lynn, said in a press statement. "The federal government cannot fund a program that plays favorites among religions and uses tax dollars to pay for spiritual transformation."
The Bureau of Prisonsâ€™ request for proposals states that participation in the programs will be voluntary and that all enrolled prisonersâ€™ religious beliefs or non-beliefs are to be respected. But it also calls for "single-faith, residential re-entry programs" designed to foster "personal transformation for the participating inmates." And one of ten key goals, along with mental health, academic, vocational and interpersonal skills, is "spiritual development."
So far, there is no scientific evidence that religion-based programs help prisoners when they re-enter society.
In an interview with the Washington Post, Department of Justice spokesperson Brian Roekrkasse defended the constitutionality of the program, stressing that it will be voluntary and that enrollees will have no extra incentives to join, such as reduction of sentences, better facilities or food.
But so far, there is no scientific evidence that religion-based programs help prisoners when they re-enter society. A much-touted study, hailed by religious groups and President Bush as showing that faith-based rehabilitation programs work, actually showed less flattering results than supporters claimed.
That 2003 study of the InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI), a pilot program in the Texas Department of Corrections under then-Governor George W. Bush, was conducted by Byron R. Johnson, director of the University of Pennsylvaniaâ€™s Center for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society.
Comparing participants in the faith-based program to inmates who participated in no program at all, the study found that graduates of the program were re-arrested and re-jailed at lower rates than those who did not participate in IFI at all. Just over 17 percent of IFI graduates were arrested during the two years after being released, compared to 35 percent in the comparison group, and only 8 percent went back to jail, as opposed to 20.3 percent of former inmates who did not participate in the faith-based pre-release program.
But when the comparison was altered to include inmates who dropped out or were expelled from the program or who otherwise did not complete it â€“ a population that accounted for more than half of the IFI enrollees the study followed â€“ the "success" of the program evaporated.
Overall, people who participated in IFI faired slightly worse than those who never joined the program: 36.2 percent of participants were re-arrested compared to 35 percent of the control group. They were plagued by a higher re-incarceration rate: 24.3 percent of program participants returned to jail or prison, compared to 20.3 percent of the control group.
Additionally, the analysis of IFI did not measure the program against results from any comparable secular services.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State suspects that the Bureau of Prisons grants are designed to cater to the evangelical Christian group Prison Fellowship and its InnerChange program, which is currently used in four state prisons. In a letter to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales asking him to rescind the call for grant proposals, the group pointed out that the requirements for the programs â€“ including the duration, subject matter and design â€“ are similar to the InnerChange Freedom Initiative.
"The solicitation thus seems to have been drafted in a manner designed to ensure that Prison Fellowhip/InnerChange would be an acceptable bidder while making it unlikely that other proposals would pass muster," wrote the group to the attorney general.
For its part, the Justice Department denied such "religious gerrymandering" as Americans United called it. Spokesman Roehrkasse told the Post, "Any and all organizations â€“ of any faith or none â€“ are eligible and invited to submit a proposal."