Nothing about religion in the public sphere is uncomplicated. And those attendant complications permeate the juggernaut of so-called “bipartisan prison/criminal justice reform.”
Many liberal/progressive communities of faith, advocacy organizations, pundits, and politicians have been reluctant, if not reflexively averse, to engaging these issues in any but the most simplistic or reactive ways. The result is that the evangelical Christian Right, in concert with “unfettered free market/everything’s a commodity” corporate interests, now dominates the terrain of sentencing and corrections reform. The exception may be the movement to abolish the death penalty.
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Here’s a brief primer on how this is playing out and what it means for us for the future.
Background: Religious Involvement in Prison Work and Reform
Religious and spiritual communities have always played significant roles in and even driven a great deal of criminal legal system reform in this country. Quakers and other religious reformers, for example, were instrumental in the creation of the penitentiary as a purportedly humane alternative to brutal forms of corporal punishment and the death penalty – a reform with horrifically and structurally violent consequences that continue to accrue today.
From the inception of the penitentiary, responding to ancient religious exhortations to visit and provide solace and care to those who are imprisoned, people of many different Christian denominations and faith traditions, across the political spectrum, have undertaken many different forms of outreach, service, and ministry to incarcerated people and their families.
These include, for example, the Quaker Alternatives to Violence Program, support for incarcerated Jewish people and their families through Aleph Institute’s Sparks of Light Prison Program and Jewish Prisoner Services International, and the Buddhist-created Prison Mindfulness Institute
Muslim prison work focuses on support, spiritual care, and access to services for people who are incarcerated, and support for incarcerated American Indian/Native American and other Indigenous peoples, including Native Alaskans, seeks to provide access to spiritual guidance, in-prison and re-entry resources, and participation in sacred ceremonies and cultural practices for incarcerated members of many different cultures, nations, bands, and tribes.
Almost all of these religious and spiritual communities and organizations support varying kinds of prison and criminal legal system reform. But all prison ministries are not equal in access to prisoners or to money, corporate power, and political influence, and even the concept of “religious freedom” can be used to trump the religious and civil rights and liberties of some groups.
And that matters, because throughout U.S. history, “prison and criminal justice reforms,” despite the humanitarian impulses of those who support them, have had a disturbing tendency to “widen the net” – that is, expand the number of people who come under some form of correctional control. They also tend to progressively blur the lines between church and state, between government and the production of private profit. And they have always made hash of the “free exercise” clause of the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Moreover, reforms almost invariably leave the criminalization of selected communities – especially communities of color, Muslims, and LGBTQ peoples – intact or even intensify it, primarily through highly selective ways in which even neutrally worded laws and policies are enforced. This true even when the reforms are meant to protect those vulnerable and marginalized communities.
Whenever religion is intensely politicized in service of domination and supremacy, those already suffering the heaviest brunt of structural violence are going to get hit even harder by the fist of triumphalism. That’s what’s happening today.
The Terrain of Contemporary Faith-Based Reform
Despite shifts in public thinking about (at least some forms of) “get tough” crime policy, the fraudulent War on Drugs, and “prison reform,” criminalizing narratives that drive mass incarceration and justify structural prison violence have not lost their political effectiveness – especially those that target black and brown people; immigrants, American Indians/Native Americans and other Indigenous peoples, including Native Hawaiians and Native Alaskans [PDF]; Muslims, LGBTQ people, and poor and homeless people. And let’s not forget the particular criminalizing hell reserved for women and transgender people of color.
While many people want to believe that current reform initiatives will weaken these processes of criminalization that’s wishful thinking. In particular, there is a disheartening but abiding belief in the white-dominated left that even the most watered down diminution of the drug war and drug-related mandatory minimum sentencing for minor offenses will somehow magically initiate the gutting of structural racism in the criminal legal system – as if racism weren’t foundational to that system.
Nothing in the proffered reforms addresses the selective and highly unequal policing practices, especially racial profiling, that drive people into the criminal legal system. These measures are largely about strengthening the popular base of the right while simultaneously expanding the profit-producing population for privatized parole, probation, treatment and rehabilitation services, and re-entry services.
Conservative/Right secular and religious organizations have created economically lucrative and politically cohesive strategies for providing both prison-based, post-prison, and community corrections services within a framework of secular and faith-based privatization. Progressive groups, by contrast, have done little more than uncritically sign on to reform agendas or remain silent about right-wing reform initiatives. The result is the increasing privatization of the criminal legal system itself.
One of the most prominent Christian Right architects of reform cut his political teeth in the era of backlash against the African American Civil Rights movement, the anti-Vietnam war movement, poor peoples’ organizing, and other liberation movements. Chuck Colson, the founder of Prison Fellowship. For many years, he was best known as special counsel to the president in Richard Nixon’s corrupt administration, a ruthless man, renowned for his devotion to reprehensible “dirty tricks,” who facilitated the White House response to Daniel Ellsberg’s release of the Pentagon Papers and the infamous Watergate scandals and that ultimately toppled a presidency. Colson eventually went to (white collar, minimum security, federal) prison for seven months on an obstruction of justice charge.
Somewhere along the line, he underwent religious conversion with the support of an elite group of political power brokers, and founded the evangelical Prison Fellowship in 1976, which is the largest religious organization wholly dedicated to prison ministry. In 2014, the Fellowship was active in 334 U.S. prisons, jails, and detention centers with a multi-million dollar budget. He remained active in its leadership and other Christian Right endeavors until his death in 2012, inveighing to the end against reproductive justice, same-sex marriage, and gay men as disease carriers.
The original political engine of contemporary prison reform was crafted deep in the heart of Texas. Since the 1980s, Texas has played a singular role in the growth of prison privatization generally, and the state helps support an ambitious private prison industry through contracts with several companies, primarily Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation’s largest supplier of private prison services, and The GEO Group.
In 1996, the Texas Governor’s Advisory Task Force on Faith-Based Community Service Groups, appointed by George W. Bush, issued a report, Faith in Action: A New Vision for Church-State Cooperation that identified pressing social problems, attacked “today’s welfare system” as a response to them, called for the privatization of welfare, and announced that government had a key role to play as an “enabler” of faith-based groups who could respond more effectively to those problems.
The report embraced religion – not racial, gender, and economic justice – as the certain antidote to ‘communities imprisoned by violence and fear.” Structural drivers of incarceration were ignored; instead, it was assumed that too many people were in prison only because of faulty moral character, lack of respectability, and poor personal judgment. The cure: moral rehabilitation within a faith-based framework. While care was taken to use neutral/generic terms – “faith-based” and “religious,” only politically conservative Christian initiatives, including Prison Fellowship, were cited as examples of desirable programming.
The first such program instituted via contract with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, was the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, a Christ-centered, Bible-based Prison Fellowship pre-release program, implemented at the Vance Unit in Richmond, Texas. Other faith-based prison initiatives proliferated rapidly. In 2002, the Texas Freedom Network issued a damning report [PDF] documenting lack of accountability, conflicts of interest, adverse affects of deregulation, and other failures in the state’s faith-based initiative; it was largely ignored.
With Texas blazing a trail into faith-based imprisonment, new opportunities opened up to combine new, aggressive forms of Christian Right activism with prison privatization. Florida was up next.
During his tenure as governor of Florida, Jeb Bush accelerated the push, creating the first “faith and character-based institution” (an FCBI, in the new parlance). In 2014, there are now 16 residential FCB programs, including entire facilities and special areas within facilities. They are predominantly evangelical Christian in focus, but purport to allow participation and provide services to inmates regardless of religious preference. A special affiliate program, Faith-Based Transitional Housing Substance Abuse Programs provides support to selected released offenders; most of the affiliates are also conservative Christian in focus.
Other states – Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas, Minnesota, Tennessee, New Mexico, and Iowa among them – have put some form of intensified faith-based programming in place in selected prisons, jails, and juvenile facilities. Minnesota has an InnerChange program; other states have “InnerChange-like” programs. And some have so-called “God Pods” and other faith initiatives run by CCA in collaboration with selected, predominantly conservative, Christian partners, Institute for Basic Life Principles, Rick Warren’s Saddleback Ministries, Child Evangelism Fellowship, Habitat for Humanity, Prison Fellowship, School of Christ International, and Trinity Broadcasting Network.
President George W. Bush carried these ideas to the White House, creating the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (now known as the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships). Building on Bill Clinton’s “Charitable Choice” provision in his catastrophic 1996 welfare reform bill that permitted some overtly religious groups to receive federal funds for providing social services, the Bush faith-based initiative over time released billions of dollars to religious organizations, even as it slashed funding for human programs provided by the government.
Do faith-based programs work better than programs sponsored by the government or secular community-based organizations? That depends on how effectiveness is assessed, what questions are asked, and from what vantage point.
Not surprisingly, cohesive faith-based housing units with a variety of programs and opportunities for prisoners appear to have fewer disciplinary problems – and less conflict makes for less stress for everyone. But shouldn’t a wide variety of supportive programs and services be available to all prisoners, without regard to residency in a special faith-based unit? Shouldn’t all prisoners be able to count on being safe and having access to meaningful rehabilitation programs without being subjected to proselytizing or mandatory religious education?
The central evaluation question being asked is whether faith-based prison programs reduce recidivism. The programs say the answer is a resounding “yes!” But look a little deeper, and that’s not necessarily true. In 2003, Mark A.R. Kleiman offered an analysis of the misuse and manipulation of data in an evaluation of Colson’s InnerChange program. The results of this study, Kleiman says, are the product of “selection” bias also known as “creaming” or “cooking the books” – that is, focusing on the most successful “graduates” who continued with the program after release and got/kept a job while ignoring less successful participants. The Urban Institute’s 2007 evaluation of Florida experience, while genially positive, suggested that any benefit in recidivism rates was very small at six months for men in one institution, but non-existent for anyone at twelve months.. The Urban Institute evaluation also notes the possibility of “creaming” as a factor in results.
More recently, Sasha Volokh reviewed a number of existing studies – the methodologically flawed clunkers and those characterized as more valid evaluations – purporting to asses the effectiveness of faith-based prisons. Volokh eventually concluded that the studies generally reveal very little and provide no consistently clear or definitive answers.
Most people don’t know how to analyze these studies, and so the repetitive mantras of “evidence-based” and “data-driven” dominate the narrative. This is meant to reassure us that there is no evaluative subjectivity involved at all; it’s all in the numbers. Yet these studies generally avoid or lightly sidestep around the more difficult questions and controversies attending the preferential status given to particular evangelical Christian groups and programs.
In the end, the most likely (and mundane) truth is that some public and secular programs do lousy jobs of reducing recidivism while some faith-based groups do excellent jobs – and vice versa. We need to resist the idea that there is some absolutely objective and scientific way to prove success. While narrowly focused effectiveness studies may provide useful data, numbers alone doesn’t tell us what really happens to the human beings in prisons, treatment and rehabilitation programs, and community corrections – especially those who don’t fit in with, conform to, or are even criminalized by faith-based prison program providers.
Let’s turn to the more difficult, sometimes inconvenient and sticky questions embedded in that issue.
Some Are Lifted Up While Others Are Left Behind
The central question is “whose religious freedom is being shored up, at whose expense?”
The “most favored status” of particular evangelical Christian groups is typically justified on the basis that there are more Christians – not necessarily evangelical Christians -in need of ministry than members of other religious communities. That is, numerical dominance wins the day. If that is the metric for religious freedom, we have well and truly entered the faith-based Twilight Zone.
But nobody’s religious freedom is being sacrificed, denied, or abridged, we are told. Participation in faith-based programming is entirely voluntary: you can participate and get extra privileges or exercise your freedom to not participate. It’s win-win!
Imagine, then, being a male prisoner at the Marion Correctional Institution in 2003, ordered to watch a live internet broadcast of a four-hour event featuring the Promise Keepers, an international men’s Christian ministry with strong beliefs about male authority and the absolute submission of women to that authority. The broadcast was sponsored by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections. and simultaneously streamed to an additional 10,000 prisoners in some 70 facilities throughout the country.
Or imagine not being an evangelical Christian in the Iowa prison at Newtown where, from 1999 to 2007, funded a Prison Fellowship InnerChange Freedom Initiative program, an intense, residential initiative meshing Christian immersion with rehabilitative services. State funds covered a significant portion of the program’s operating costs. All program components reflected “a biblical worldview” particular to Prison Fellowship. If a prisoner didn’t share that worldview, she or he could turn away. But participants received better housing with more personal privacy, better food, and more activities in a particular wing of the prison, along with better access to classes required for parole and re-entry and the opportunity to have more contact with family members. Participation in the InnerChange program was the only way to gain access to such preferential treatment.
And imagine the feelings of stigma, isolation, and possibly anger experienced when InnerChange staff members openly misrepresented, belittled, and demeaned the beliefs of other denominations, religions, and spiritual traditions, although Prison Fellowship did not officially condone such behavior. How non-coercive can it be when the primary way to improve your circumstances is to participate in these particular Christian programs?
In 2006, a federal judge found that the state’s support of the InnerChange Freedom Initiative constituted an unconstitutional use of taxpayer money for religious indoctrination, and that no adequate safeguards were or could be put in place to prevent it. He also found that, “For all practical purposes, the state has literally established an Evangelical Christian congregation within the walls of one of its penal institutions, giving the leaders of that congregation…authority to control the spiritual, emotional, and physical lives of hundreds of Iowa inmates.” The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals subsequently confirmed the judge’s ruling, but reversed the part of his decision that ordered Prison Fellowship to terminate the program and return state monies already paid to it. The program continued, without state funds, until 2008, when state authorities ended it.
It was a cautionary ruling. In order to survive such constitutional scrutiny, many evangelical faith-based groups began to offer intense immersion programs on a volunteer basis, free of charge to prisons, emphasizing the character-building nature programs, suitable for either religious or secular participation. State funds are now typically not allocated to pay staff or supply religiously oriented materials. Indeed, prisons often claim that community volunteers and prison chaplains can adequately and appropriately meet the diverse spiritual needs of inmates.
The argument is that while the dominant perspective is evangelical Christian, satisfactory efforts are made to provide others with equal opportunities and access, whether the prisoners wish to claim no religious belief or one other than evangelical Christianity. CCA’s faith-based programs, for example, are overseen by full-time chaplains, overwhelmingly Christian, who “must command a deep respect and thorough understanding of various belief systems and needs” and “dozens of religions.” CCA says it provides this network of chaplains with “resources detailing the specific history, customs, religious items and belief systems of nearly 40 major religions, including various Christian denominations, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Native American tribal religions and other lesser-known faith groups.”
But how well, equally, and consistently, can a Christian chaplain serve members of other denominations, faiths, and spiritual traditions as well as those who belong to no religious tradition at all?
Not well. Washington state Jewish prison chaplain Gary Friedman once described himself as “constantly accosted by evangelical missionaries who preach behind prison walls.” He asserted that prohibitions against proselytizing are commonly ignored, describing InnerChange and similar programs as “proselytizing machines designed to create inmate ‘disciples’ who, when transferred to other prisons, proselytize to fellow inmates.”
Such aggressive efforts to convert prisoners to Christianity, combined with granting special privileges to participants in such programs and obstructing the free exercise rights of those with different beliefs have spurred protests and a number of lawsuits. Yet individual lawsuits are costly and time-consuming – and even when successful, they don’t change the essential terrain very much for very long, if indeed they change it at all.
Finally, there are specific questions about whose free exercise rights are abridged or denied
“Through my personal experience, I have observed the denial of American Indians to engage in the practice of their traditional religious, cultural and spiritual ceremonies and beliefs throughout the United States Prison System. The extreme racism and discrimination toward religious and spiritual beliefs and practices has made it very difficult for the Native inmates to practice and participate in traditional ceremonial practices in a consistent manner. I base my knowledge and experience on the visits to ninety-six (96) state and federal correctional facilities where I have provided spiritual counseling to approximately two thousand Native American male and female inmates. – Lenny Foster, Program Supervisor for the Navajo Nations Corrections Project
While Muslims have made some strides toward free exercise of religion in U.S. jails and prisons (see here), a post-9/11 wave of demonizing discourse frames followers of Islam as terrorists and violent enemies of Christianity – in prisons, as well as in society. Prisons are framed as “recruiting grounds” where inmates can be “radicalized” and turned into a steady stream of terrorists. This, in turn justifies different and discriminatory treatment.
Muslims, Jews, American Indians and other indigenous peoples, Santeria, Hindus, Sikhs, Rastafarians, Buddhists, Wiccans, and a host of others who are not Christian simply do not have equal access to the facilities and resources enjoyed by evangelical Christians. Rhetorical winks and nods are given to the idea of access for all, but it has little or no systemic reality. The same is true for many Christians who do not share the particular evangelical perspectives of those Christians in charge of intensive faith-based programs in jails and prisons.
Florida says that its faith and character programs provide secular self-improvement opportunities that are in every way the equivalent of faith-based initiatives. But the 2007 Urban Institute report momentarily broke through its own vague reassurances about the virtue of the programs to suggest that such offerings are not evenly available to non-religious people and timidly proposed that this aspect of work be strengthened. The report also noted the strong influence volunteers – overwhelmingly faith-based – have on determining availability of various program options and suggested, in language akin to a rhetorical whisper, that this be examined. One close observer of all of this has actually suggested that the solution can be found in creating a voucher system for prisons, which, by fostering economic competition among prisons, would provide greater faith-based “choice” for incarcerated people and avoid pesky constitutional conflicts.
Finally, these evangelical prison environments are often openly hostile to LGBTQ people. The major faith-based players in the private prison industry not only fail to support LGBT struggle for rights and recognition; they outright condemn it, insisting that their religious freedom permits them to discriminate, even when they are providing services for public institutions. Colson’s Prison Fellowship, for example, produces a variety of resources for prisoners and their families, including How I Climbed Out of the Gay Lifestyle: A Christian Perspective on Homosexuality. The Urban Institute’s 2007 evaluation of Florida faith-based prisons and other initiatives specifically mentions homophobia directed at persons known or perceived to be gay, but makes no suggestion for corrective action. In any case, free exercise arguments are being used to dismantle the framework of LGBT rights, and in the post Hobby Lobby era, we can expect such arguments to proliferate.
Who Pays and Who Profits?
Proponents of faith-based prison privatization love to say that these efforts cost the state nothing; that they rely on Christian charity, generosity, and volunteerism, so there is no church/state conflict and no tax dollars go to support religion; that any public dollars will fund only secular aspects of the work. And yes, many people do volunteer to help with these programs while others are staff paid by private money from corporations and religious associations to work in prisons. But for prison officials, even those paid staff count as volunteers since they are not paid by the state.
Even so, it is disingenuous, at best, to suggest that taxpayers aren’t subsidizing these programs. Of course we are – sometimes directly because our tax dollars fund state contracts with CCA and other private prison businesses, and often indirectly, through public institutional practices that enable privileged – sometimes exclusive – access to prisoners and prison facilities for some groups but not for others, most of whom lack the financial and staffing capacity to subsidize that magnitude of public responsibility.
Tax payers also fund the lucrative per diem costs for halfway houses and other residential community corrections programs. Finally, the costs of probation and other community corrections costs are increasingly being shifted directly to poor people.
Transforming the Terrain of Justice
We must reject the current parameters of prison and criminal justice reform. It is not possible to tweak them sufficiently to produce truly just policies and practices. The issue is not whether there are sincere Christian Right individuals committed to deeper kinds of criminal justice reform. Of course there are. The task before us is not to demonize the many different varieties of evangelical Christianity.
The issue is also not working to reform prisons and the criminal legal system, forcing them into kinder, gentler iterations of themselves through litigation and electoral politics. Politicians will not lead; they are far too timid and invested in the status quo to do so. Moreover, even the small victories we’ve won – discontinuation of state funding for the Iowa InnerChange program, for example – likely will not hold up in the long run. In the post Citizens United world, right-wing money has been pouring in lately to influence judicial elections and appointments.
In a sense, it is just as well that we can’t rely on those crimped strategies to produce anything fresh and up to the challenge. It is extraordinarily difficult to change the systemic, “most favored,” infusion of particular forms of evangelical Christianity and the intensity of faith-based programming in U.S. prisons and jails. The difficulty increases with expansion of faith-based treatment and rehabilitation programs, re-entry services, and community corrections. Deeply embedded in the private prison industry, such programs enjoy powerful political support.
That’s why we must seek to completely transform this terrain. Substantive structural change requires a cultural shift, one that will only be possible if we are willing to step outside the illusory safety of the terms of debate being given to us now, and only if we are willing to move with creativity beyond our usual reactive and defensive responses. It’s time to shed such timidity.
At the same time, we must reject the powerful temptation to simply try to flip who gets to exercise oppressive power over others. Our goal should be to create vibrant communities that no longer rely on intensified policing, punishment, and religious dominance to produce public safety and caring communities. We can only do this by utilizing every possible form of imagination and creativity to shift the terms of debate by offering new, more compelling visions of justice and religious freedom.
And along the way, we must fight for the rights of people to reject or ignore religion as strongly as we fight for freedom of religious and spiritual expression.
As we do, it will become obvious that taking up this challenge carries us into the center of structural white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and capitalism with its attendant violence – racial, gendered, economic, sexual, and religious – historically embedded in the institution of the prison. That’s daunting, but it’s also energizing because one isn’t fighting shadows any more.
At its core, this should be the boldest, most energizing fight for the authentic democracy we can imagine.
Nothing else will suffice.