'Faith-Based' Programs Proliferate in Prisons

A new front has opened in the move toward "faith-based" prisons.

The "faith-based" initiative has attracted the attention and support of corrections officials in a number of states, including Florida, Texas, Kansas and Iowa. Now Georgia is joining the list.

Georgia newspapers reported yesterday that faith-based dormitories have been set up in six state prisons with plans to add the special units to all of the state's prisons.

Prisoners who sign up to reside in the dorms, according to The Macon Telegraph, will be allowed to "work on their faith and character...." The newspaper also notes that the new religiously based dorms should help state officials "supplement a badly depleted staff of prison counselors and teachers by using volunteers from churches, mosques, synagogues and other religious groups."

Americans United for Separation of Church and State questioned Georgia's decision, charging that state officials have turned to the faith-based program because they are unwilling to spend the necessary money to provide proven rehabilitation services.

"There have been studies on what works in prison – intensive rehabilitation programs that include a variety of components," Americans United Legal Director Ayesha Khan told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "That's not true with these religious programs. So what does that mean? That what they have going for them is that they're cheap?"

As noted by the Telegraph, President George W. Bush's trumpeting of the faith-based initiative partly inspired Georgia's decision to launch the new program. Americans United, however, has warned that faith-based initiatives must be done carefully to avoid violating the First Amendment.

Last year, AU launched legal challenges in federal court to Iowa's use of a publicly funded program that seeks to rehabilitate prisoners by converting them to fundamentalist Christianity.

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, said at the time the lawsuits were filed that Iowa prison officials "should use public funds to help rehabilitate all prison inmates, not just those who are willing to convert to fundamentalist Christianity."