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Iowa’s Faith-Based Prison Wing Ruled Unconstitutional !


By Dr. Bruce Prescott


A landmark decision was handed down in June 2006 by the U.S. District Court in Des Moines, Iowa.  AU challenged the constitutionality of using taxpayer funds to support Prison Fellowship’s “InnerChange” Christian rehabilitation program in Iowa.  The court agreed with AU and ordered the ministry to repay the corrections department the more than the $1.5 million dollars that it had received since the program began.  The case is under appeal.


Prison Fellowship Ministries was founded by Chuck Colson, former Counsel for President Nixon. Colson founded his ministry after spending seven months in prison for obstructing justice in the Watergate scandal.  In most states Colson’s work is funded by private contributions.  In Iowa, the state legislature appropriated several hundred thousand dollars for the ministry to run a “value-based treatment program” at its Newton Correctional Facility.


AU contended that taxpayer funds were unconstitutionally being used to support a sectarian religious program that was both discriminatory and proselytizing.  Staffing the program only with evangelical Christians discriminated in hiring.  Ejecting persons from the program who express disagreement with the program’s religious teachings discriminated both against persons of other Christian convictions and against those of other faiths.  Particularly odious was the program’s insistence on Biblical literalism, male supremecism, the necessity that wives submit to the rule of their husbands, hostility toward homosexuals, criticism of Catholicism and judgments about other faiths.  Participants in the program felt pressured to convert to an evangelical form of Christianity.


When released from prison, inmates were paired with a mentor and local church and were required to stay employed, perform community service, attend church regularly, and remain in contact with their mentor.


Prison Fellowship credited the aftercare component of the program with boosting the rate of successful rehabilitations. 


Critics the program assert that their claims for successful rehabilitation are “statistically invalid.”  Excluded from InnerChange’s statistics are participants who failed to complete the program.  In addition, AU offered evidence that the statistics were skewed by the expulsion of likely recidivists from the program before they could graduate.  


A study by UCLA professor Mark Kleiman revealed that, when both graduates and non-graduates of the program were considered,   InnerChange’s recidivism rate was actually higher than that of a control group.


Chief Judge Robert Pratt ruled that the InnerChange Freedom Initiative “has the primary effect of impermissibly endorsing religion” through its contract with the state corrections department. 


The program was “pervasively sectarian,” Pratt said, requiring participants to attend worship services, weekly revivals and religious community meetings.


Oral arguments were held on February 13, 2007 for Prison Fellowship’s appeal before the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.   


A decision on this case has not yet been released.




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