Federal Appeals Court To Hear Important 'faith-based' Prison Rehab Case From Iowa

Americans United Says Publicly Funded Evangelical Program Violates Church-State Separation, Denigrates Other Faiths

Can the government force inmates to become evangelical Christians as the price of receiving rehabilitation, better treatment while in prison and the prospect of earlier release?

Can taxpayers be forced to support a prison ministry that indoctrinates inmates in one religious tradition and attacks other faiths as false?

What if to make matters worse the sectarian program has no proof of success in its performance?

Those questions are at the heart of an important court hearing before the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Arguments in Americans United v. Prison Fellowship Ministries will take place Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2007, at 9 a.m. at the Thomas F. Eagleton United States Courthouse in St. Louis, Mo.

The case will be heard by retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Circuit Judges Roger Wollman and Duane Benton.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, representing a group of inmates, inmates’ family members and taxpayers, will urge the appellate panel to affirm that the “InnerChange Freedom Initiative” at Newton Correctional Facility in Iowa is unconstitutional. AU Senior Litigation Counsel Alex Luchenitser will argue the case on behalf of Americans United.

A federal district court has already ruled that InnerChange violates the separation of church and state. On June 2, 2006, Judge Robert W. Pratt found that the publicly funded religious program at Newton transgresses the First Amendment ban on government support for religion. His decision is now on appeal.

“No American should be pressured by the government to conform to any particular religious viewpoint,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Inmates should have access to effective rehabilitation programs that prepare them for life outside prison, no matter what religion they subscribe to.”

Continued Lynn, “This case has major implications for the Bush ‘faith-based’ initiative. Programs that are pervaded with religion should not get public funds.”


Prison Fellowship Ministries (PFM) is an evangelical Christian organization founded by convicted Watergate figure Chuck Colson. PFM describes its flagship rehabilitation program, the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, as “a revolutionary, Christ-centered, faith-based prison program supporting prison inmates through their spiritual and moral transformation.” InnerChange was sold to the Iowa Department of Corrections as a way to reduce recidivism rates, but it is primarily intended to convert inmates to evangelical Christianity.

State corrections officials contracted with PFM in 1999, originally funding the program through a surcharge on telephone calls made by Newton inmates. In 2002, the state legislature agreed to subsidize InnerChange with taxpayer funds. Between 1999 and 2006, Iowa gave more than $1.7 million in public funds directly to InnerChange.

Americans United sued in 2003 to stop the funding, arguing that the contract violated the First Amendment ban on state-supported religious indoctrination. 

The District Court Opinion

In an exhaustive 140-page decision, Judge Pratt rejected PFM’s claims that the program did not advance religion. Most significantly, Judge Pratt declared, “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, i.e., InnerChange employees, authority to control the spiritual, emotional, and physical lives of hundreds of Iowa inmates.”

Here are three important points from the decision: 

InnerChange Amounts to Publicly Funded Religious Indoctrination. The Supreme Court has ruled that a “governmental entity is at the greatest risk of impermissibly advancing religion when the ‘government makes direct money payments to sectarian institutions.’” Judge Pratt agreed that the State of Iowa had directly funded this pervasively sectarian program and that InnerChange used the state funds for the indoctrination and conversion of inmates. Indeed, Judge Pratt said the contract forces Iowa taxpayers to support a program where “Every waking moment…is devoted to teaching and indoctrinating inmates into the Christian faith.”

The State Provides Preferential Treatment to InnerChange Participants. InnerChange participants reap benefits unmatched in most medium-security prisons. Aside from living in Newton’s more comfortable “Honor Unit,” InnerChange participants enjoy private bathrooms, more time on the computer and increased visiting time with family and friends.

The major benefit, however, is a fast-track to parole. InnerChange participants can obtain treatment credits that are needed for early parole long before their counterparts in the general population. At the Newton facility, practicing Protestants are overwhelmingly more likely to reap this benefit because most of them participate in InnerChange.

InnerChange Denigrates Other Faiths. Judge Pratt found that the “intensive, indoctrinating Christian language and practice that makes up the InnerChange program effectively precludes non-Evangelical Christian inmates from participating…. [Prison Fellowship Ministries’] assertion that all inmates are welcome in the program is true in form only.” The court ruled that the program discriminated against inmates of other religious persuasions by asking them “to compromise, if not completely abandon, their faith in order to participate.”

Non-evangelical Christian inmates who were willing to enter the program were subjected to derogatory remarks by state-paid InnerChange employees. According to Judge Pratt’s decision, “non-religious persons were often characterized by InnerChange staff as ‘unsaved,’ ‘lost,’ ‘pagan,’ those ‘who served the flesh,’ ‘of Satan,’ ‘sinful,’ and ‘of darkness.’” Roman Catholic, Muslim and Native American faiths are likewise denigrated by program staff indeed, at trial, one inmate testified that an InnerChange counselor compared the Pope to Hitler.

Prison Fellowship’s False Claims of Success

PFM officials have repeatedly claimed in the media that the InnerChange program is successful and leads to a startling reduction in recidivism rates. Interestingly, they did not make this argument in court.

In fact, there is no objective evidence that InnerChange works or reduces recidivism. In 2003, Colson released what he said was statistical validation for this claim, trumpeting a study purporting to show that inmates who took part in InnerChange returned to prison at a much lower rate than those who did not.

The study made a big splash in the media, but the claims quickly evaporated. Mark Kleiman, a professor of public policy at the University of California-Los Angeles, examined the data and found it to be statistically invalid. Prison Fellowship had excluded all the prisoners who did not finish the program, in essence kicking its failures out. When all of the participants were added back in, Kleiman found that InnerChange participants actually returned to prison at a slightly higher rate than a control group.

Judge Pratt made note of InnerChange’s unsubstantiated claims, writing, “Aside from anecdotes, the Defendants offered no definitive study about the actual effects the InnerChange program has on recidivism rates.”

Prison Chaplains Support Americans United

It is significant that the nation’s leading professional prison chaplain associations are supporting Americans United.

The American Correctional Chaplains Association (ACCA), The American Catholic Correctional Chaplains Association and Jewish Prisoner Services International filed a joint friend-of-the-court brief urging the 8th Circuit to affirm the decision in Americans United’s favor.

The chaplains’ brief stresses that the three groups do not believe Judge Pratt’s decision bans religion or religious leaders from prisons. The brief explains the nature of prison chaplaincy programs. The “cardinal principle of all chaplaincy programs,” say the ACCA’s Standards for Adult Correctional Institutions, “is that of religious inclusion and nondiscrimination.”

Observes the brief, “For a chaplain or volunteer to impose his or her religious beliefs on an inmate, to press an inmate to participate in religious activities, or to make religious acquiescence a [condition for] receiving services is not only a contravention of ACCA…standards, it is also a violation of the power and trust relationships that exist in such situations.”

The brief goes on to cite the U.S. Bureau of Prisons’ policy that “no private contractor may disparage the religious belief of an inmate, [or] coerce or harass inmates to change religious affiliation. Attendance at all religious activities is voluntary and unless otherwise specifically determined by the Warden, open to all.”

The brief agrees with Judge Pratt’s decision that InnerChange is “pervasively sectarian in character and discriminatory in operation.” The program is clearly not intended, the chaplains argue, to serve the individual’s spiritual needs; instead, it uses state resources to promote a narrow brand of religion.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.