Colson Prison Blues

'Faith-Based' Program In Iowa Prison Merges Religion And Government, Says Americans United In Legal Action

Prison inmates who end up at Newton Correctional Facility in Newton, Iowa, had better be prepared to do hard time.

As a medium-security institution, Newton does not house Iowa's most violent prisoners but it still has its share of offenders serving sentences for serious crimes like murder, rape and armed robbery. Inmates in the general population quickly learn to be on guard for the violence and conflict that can be a daily part of life behind bars.

But within Newton there is a special cadre of prisoners who have it a lot easier. General-population inmates live according to rigid schedules determined by prison officials and are monitored constantly, but in this special unit, the 210 inmates have bathroom privacy and even keys to their cells. The special-unit inmates also enjoy big-screen television, free phone calls to family members, less taxing prison jobs and access to computers and art supplies for creative projects perks general-population inmates can only dream about.

Why are these inmates in the special unit treated differently? The surprising answer is because of their religious beliefs. The special unit is a wing of Newton administered by ex-Watergate figure Charles Colson's Prison Fellowship Ministries. Inmates there have agreed to go through an intensive program, called the "InnerChange Freedom Initiative," designed to convert them to fundamentalist Christianity.

For many years, Colson's group has sponsored religious programs for prisoners funded with contributions given by people who believe in Prison Fellowship's mission. Now that is beginning to change, and the group is seeking government support and funding for its religious approach to prisoner rehabilitation. Iowa's Newton facility, which adopted InnerChange in 1999, is among the first to enter into an official relationship with Colson's organization.

The Iowa program is no anomaly. Prison Fellowship offers its InnerChange program at Newton Correctional Facility as well as prisons in Texas (where it was strongly supported by then-Gov. George W. Bush), Kansas and Minnesota. Corrections officials in other states are considering the program, and last year a separate religious program was approved for use in five federal prisons. It is already up and running in three.

InnerChange's close relationship with the state comes despite the fact that it is a heavily religious program with an overt fundamentalist Christian message. No one disputes the sectarian nature of the program, and InnerChange staffers freely admit that religious conversion is their main goal.

"From the state's point of view, the mission is to reduce recidivism," Jack Cowley, who runs InnerChange in Texas, told The Non-profit Times last year. "From a ministry point of view, our mission is to save souls for Christ."

In Iowa, Chris Geil, director of the InnerChange program at Newton Correction Facility, was equally blunt. "If you turn your life over to Jesus," Geil told The New York Times in April of 2001, "you'll have the tools to change your life."

Mark Earley, a former attorney general of Virginia who became president of Prison Fellowship after losing a governor's race in 2001, argues that prison programs will build fundamentalist churches as well. On the group's website (, Earley, a Religious Right stalwart, writes, "I believe that in the next chapter for Prison Fellowship, God will continue to do incredibly greater things than we could ever ask for or imagine. I believe God is going to raise up the next generation of leaders for His Church from men and women now behind bars, and from their children."

Saving souls for Christ with public dollars is a hard notion to square with the separation of church and state. The issue is serious enough that last month attorneys with Americans United filed suit on behalf of an inmate at Newton Correctional Facility to block government support of InnerChange there.

"This program is one of the most egregious violations of church-state separation I've ever seen," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. "It literally merges religion and government."

Continued Lynn, "It is unconscionable for the government to give preferential treatment to prisoners based solely on their willingness to undergo religious conversion and indoctrination. Officials should use public funds to help rehabilitate all prison inmates, not just those who are willing to convert to fundamentalist Christianity. Sadly, President Bush sees nothing wrong with an arrangement like this and indeed wants to spread it across all social services, affecting all Americans. It's a dangerous agenda that must be stopped."

AU Legal Director Ayesha Khan said the cases present important legal questions that could help set national precedent blocking direct government support for religion through "faith-based" initiatives.

Observed Khan, "These cases have substantial implications for President Bush's faith-based initiative. The president says it's okay to use public dollars for religious discrimination, and we say it's not. These cases will be among the first to determine how far the government can go in funding religious programs."

Khan, AU Litigation Counsel Alex Luchenitser and others working on the InnerChange legal challenges Ashburn v. Mapes and Americans United for Separation of Church and State v. Prison Fellowship Ministries note that there are legal ways to make sure prison inmates are permitted to practice their religious beliefs. For example, many religious groups provide volunteer clergy who visit prison inmates and offer spiritual counseling, religious services and other types of support.

InnerChange is different because it is aggressively seeking government support and, in some cases, funding. In effect, AU argues, inmates and their families who do not qualify for the program because they are not interested in converting to fundamentalist Christianity are being forced to subsidize the program anyway, while inmates in the program get preferential treatment.

At the Newton facility, corrections officials pay for the InnerChange program by taking money from special accounts that inmates use to make and receive telephone calls. Because prison officials charge inmates more than the calls actually cost, the prison makes a profit on telephone service. The state has also allocated, but has not yet disbursed, $172,591 in funding from the Healthy Iowans Tobacco Trust Fund to pay for InnerChange.

During the 2003 fiscal year, the state allocated $229,250 from the Inmate Telephone Rebate Fund to pay for InnerChange at Newton. The state spent $325,025 for the program in 2002 and $373,000 in 2001. In 2000, the first full year of the program, Iowa spent $282,000 from the Telephone Fund for InnerChange.

Inmate Jerry D. Ashburn and members of his family, as well as family members and friends of other Newton inmates, argue that the funding policy forces them to support InnerChange's sectarian agenda. Ashburn, a member of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, contends that his religious beliefs effectively make him ineligible for the Colson program, and he resents being forced to pay for it.

The sectarian nature of InnerChange is beyond dispute. Program materials emphasize InnerChange's clear ties to fundamentalist Christianity and assert that "All programming all day, every day is Christ-centered."

The group's website ( highlights the biblical passage of Romans 6:18 "You have been set free from sin and become slaves of righteousness." The site describes InnerChange as "a revolutionary, Christ-centered, faith-based prison program supporting inmates through their spiritual and moral transformation."

InnerChange contrasts itself with therapeutic models of rehabilitation, which seek to help inmates understand how their crimes affect other people. According to InnerChange, this model fails because it does not teach prisoners that, "Sin, all sin, is a root rebellion and offense against God."

By contrast, InnerChange staffers call their model "transformation" by which they mean conversion to fundamentalist Christianity. The group's website asserts that transformation "happens through an instantaneous miracle; it then builds the prisoner up with familiarity of the Bible."

A paper about InnerChange on the website states bluntly, "A key concept in Chuck Colson's writings is that you must be born again.... Focus on the Bible is essential in this step. Colson learned this process while he was in prison."

All paid staff and volunteers at Prison Fellowship and InnerChange must agree with Colson on theology. As the website puts it, staff and volunteers must be "Christians who are living vital, empowered lives." They must sign Prison Fellowship's Statement of Faith, which reflects fundamentalist beliefs.

Participants receive religious instruction every day. They must attend chapel services on Sundays and can be kicked out of the program for failing to meet certain spiritual standards, as determined by the InnerChange staff.

(Pushing right-wing politics also seems to be a side goal of InnerChange. A September 2001 San Antonio Express-News story about the InnerChange program in Sugar Land, Texas, noted that religious instructor Cherrie Pleasant preached to inmates about the evils of legal abortion and homosexuality and nodded approvingly when an inmate blasted "evolutionism" and "humanism.")

Such overt religiosity would seem to make InnerChange a poor candidate for government aid. Yet more and more states are considering the program. InnerChange is based on a program pioneered in Brazil in 1973 by an evangelical Christian named Mario Ottoboni who believed God had called him to minister to prisoners. Drug-store magnate Jack Eckerd, a fundamentalist Christian activist, heard about the program and began lobbying for its adoption in the United States. Eckerd, who served on the Prison Fellowship board of directors for many years, persuaded Colson to begin sponsoring the program in 1995.

Two years later, InnerChange got its first try in an American prison when Bush, then governor of Texas, encouraged the establishment of a pilot program at a minimum-security facility in that state. Although the program was initially funded with private dollars, Texas legislators last year allocated $1.5 million for the program, a sum that has not yet been disbursed.

Colson's ties to Bush go back several years, and the two men remain close. Colson has been an ardent advocate of Bush's faith-based initiative and has used Prison Fellowship to lobby for the proposal.

Colson also has ties to Bush's brother, Jeb Bush, the governor of Florida. Although Prison Fellowship is based in northern Virginia, Colson is an official resident of Florida. In 2000, Jeb Bush restored Colson's ability to vote, practice law and serve on juries, rights he had lost after his Watergate conviction. In a statement, Jeb Bush said Colson had served his time and called him "a great guy [and] a great Floridian."

President Bush in turn has rewarded Colson's loyalty. In October, the Department of Health and Human Services announced a $2.2-million grant to an outfit called Dare Mighty Things, based in Vienna, Va. The group's president, vice president and several consultants are all former Prison Fellowship or InnerChange employees. Dare Mighty Things is going to use the money to establish a national resource center and clearinghouse to provide technical assistance to faith-based and community groups.

Colson may be in line for more government aid if current trends continue. Other states are following Texas' lead in striking deals with InnerChange. In Minnesota, former governor Al Quie successfully lobbied for $200,000 in state funds to bring InnerChange to the Lino Lakes Prison. Launching the program in September of 2002, Quie told participating inmates, "There's going to be failure in life sometimes, and we have to deal with it. But the less you resist the Lord, the better life will be."

In Kansas, former Gov. Bill Graves eagerly backed InnerChange with tax funds at Winfield Correctional Facility in May of 2001, telling reporters that supporting the program was worth the risk of a church-state lawsuit.

"I see the state searching for solutions to difficult questions," Graves said. "If there is a point at which a faith-based program can get us the results we are seeking, I am comfortable giving it a chance."

With the programs spreading around the nation and under consideration in the federal system as well, Americans United believed the time was right to file legal action. The organization also sees the litigation as an important step in slowing down the Bush "faith-based" initiative.

In the pair of lawsuits filed Feb. 12, AU charges that the Iowa program advances religion at government expense and forces people to support religious instruction against their will.

"It is our hope to establish that public dollars can never be used to support any group's efforts at religious conversion," AU's Lynn said. "Moreover, this program dramatically demonstrates how easy it is for government to favor religion over secular services."

In its complaint, AU dismisses claims by InnerChange that it is open to all inmates. Given the program's saturation with fundamentalist Christianity, AU attorneys argue, the program would be unwelcome to everyone except those already holding fundamentalist views or who are willing to convert.

AU notes that potential participants are screened by InnerChange and required to fill out a survey about their religious beliefs. Once in the program, inmates are evaluated every month on their adherence to fundamentalist dogma. InnerChange staffers rate inmates on whether they "demonstrate a belief in Jesus Christ," "Pray in the Spirit," "Are quick to praise God" and "Act as a witness of God's grace to others." Those who fail to measure up are removed.

Why would any state embrace a program so heavily anchored in one faith perspective? One answer may be that corrections officials see it as a relatively cheap and easy way to address a complex problem. Recidivism rates among prisoners are quite high. Statistics from the Department of Justice show that 63 percent of ex-inmates will be re-arrested within three years of release. Forty-one percent will eventually return to prison.

InnerChange insists that its program significantly reduces recidivism rates, pointing to a 1997 study that showed that only 14 percent of Prison Fellowship graduates ended up behind bars again.

But those findings seemed to clash with an earlier study that found no difference in recidivism rates between inmates who had taken part in a religious program behind bars and those who had not. Part of the problem in assessing InnerChange's effectiveness may be that the Colson program tends to work with a select population of inmates, usually men and women found guilty of low-level offenses in minimum-security institutions who are taking part in the religious effort as a pre-release program. Recidivism rates among inmates like this are generally quite low, whether they have been through InnerChange or not.

 Robert P. Weiss, a professor of sociology and criminal justice at the State University of New York in Plattsburgh, is skeptical that conversion programs alone will serve inmates well in the long run. Weiss, who taught college classes for prison inmates for 20 years in Texas, worries that proven education programs will be cut to provide funding for untested "faith-based" approaches.

A faith-based approach alone, Weiss added, is not likely to provide a foundation for success on the outside. "Unless the program provides good, solid job training, drug counseling and psychological help, then personal redemption will not be enough especially in this job market," Weiss told Church & State.

At Newton, InnerChange is working with more hard-core offenders, which could provide a more accurate picture of the program's ability to reduce recidivism. But advocates of church-state separation point out that while the question of the effectiveness of InnerChange may be of interest to criminologists and corrections officials, it does not address the core constitutional issue. Programs that have religious conversion as their key component cannot be promoted by the government or funded with public dollars, AU asserts; they should be funded with voluntary contributions.

Are there ways to provide inmates with religious services and spiritual counseling without violating church-state separation? Defenders of church-state separation say there are, noting that most prisons and jails allow visits by volunteer religious leaders. Other prisons have chaplains, who are expected to provide a variety of religious and secular services to inmates who request them without fostering any particular religious belief.

Americans United maintains that practices like this are far removed from what is going on in Iowa and other states that fund and promote InnerChange. These states, AU maintains, have gone too far in using the machinery of the state to promote and, in some cases, fund fundamentalist Christianity.

Programs similar to InnerChange have been struck down by courts before. In Texas, the sheriff of Tarrant County in the late '90s set up a special wing for fundamentalist Christian inmates in the county jail. The so-called "God pod" was similar to the InnerChange program. Inmates were immersed in fundamentalist teachings and were kept apart from other prisoners, where they enjoyed special privileges.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the American Jewish Congress filed suit over the "God pod" on behalf of two inmates, one Jewish and one a Jehovah's Witness. Two lower state courts upheld the program, but in July of 2001, the Texas Supreme Court reversed and ruled unanimously that the special pod violated church-state separation. (See "'God Pod' Disbanded," September 2001 Church & State).

Ronald B. Flowers, a member of the Americans United Board of Trustees who served as a taxpayer plaintiff in the case, has since joined an advisory board that is helping the county design a prison program that comports with church-state separation. The committee includes representatives from Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish and Islamic bodies. Members work with the jail chaplain to ensure that inmates' religious needs are met without the county promoting any specific faith.

Flowers, a religion professor at Texas Christian University, said the new arrangement, brought about in part by the election of a new sheriff in 2000 who opposed the 'God pod,' is working out well.

"Religion was not being administered in the jail on an even-handed basis before," Flowers said. "It was skewed toward a particular religion and indeed a particular theological viewpoint within that religion in short, fundamentalist Christianity."

Continued Flowers, "Now everybody, regardless of their religious persuasion, has equal access to the ministry of their faith. Obviously, valid penological concerns are followed for security reasons, but it is the case that fundamentalist Christians and Roman Catholics and Mormons, Muslims and on and on have an equal access to the ministry of their faith as much as the jail can possibly provide them."

Constitutional experts say that approach not InnerChange is the right one for prisons around the country.