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October 16, 2004

Having faith in prisons

This past week, the US Supreme Court agreed to hear Cutter v. Wilknson, an interesting case from the Sixth Circuit addressing the constitutionality of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). In Cutter, prisoners sued the State of Ohio claiming they were denied access to religious literature and ceremonial items, and the Sixth Circuit rejected the claim by invalidating RLUIPA as a violation of the Establishment Clause. More background on the case can be found in this AP article.

The case is big news at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law because it involves something of a law school civil war. As detailed here, Professor David Goldberger, Director of Clinical Programs at OSU, represents the prison inmates, while Ohio Solicitor Douglas Cole, who is on leave from the OSU faculty, will represent the State of Ohio in the Supreme Court.

Though many will be watching this case for its broader implications for church-state relations, I find the case interesting against the backdrop of recent developments in church-prison relations. As detailed in interesting articles here and here, Florida has been experimenting with "faith-based" prisons, which house inmates who have chosen to take part in rehabilitation programs run by volunteers from religious groups. Though the constitutionality and efficacy of "faith-based" prisons are not without dispute, less-than-stellar recidivism data from other prison programming makes me at least "agnostic" about experimenting with faith-based approaches to criminal rehabilitation. Though Cutter may not directly impact the faith-based prison movement, the law and policy of religious involvement in corrections will likely be an issue of on-going concern for quite some time.

October 16, 2004 at 07:06 PM | Permalink

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Comments

Prof. I would like to make an eye witness comment to this issue. I have been a vounteer in the prison systems in the state of Florida for over four years. I go in as an instructor with Prison Fellowhsip (a Christain organization.) In fact one of the prisons I go into has one of the six faith based dorms you refer to.

I know there is a thin line between church and state and I respect that line. That is why all relgious activities are a choice for the inmates to attend, even the faith-base dorms. The biggest surprise I found was that if the volunteers from faith community did not go in there would be very few people going to help these men and women. People want to yell seperation of church and state when comes to helping those in need, but no one wants to get their hands "dirty" and jump in to do the work. So who is left - the faith community.

Guess what? It WORKS!! No secular program has had the success of the faith-based facilities. Frankly, I want to stop the cycle of crime. If that means inmates finding faith that keeps them from committing a crime again - Who cares.

Thanks for the post on this subject.

Posted by: Cheryl | Oct 16, 2004 10:13:27 PM

Thanks so much for the comment, Cheryl. I'd be eager to hear from others working in these settings.

Posted by: Doug B. | Oct 16, 2004 10:47:41 PM

I do not work in these settings, however I am skeptical of the intent of some of those at the decision and policy-making levels. I am convinced of the sincerety of those at the sleeve-rolling level.

One anecdotal data point: There is a prison in PA that throws up roadblocks to volunteer monks trying to address the needs of the very small Buddhist community there. I will not add details to this public post, because I don't want to exacerbate the problem if indeed there really is contempt for non-Christian volunteer attempts in prison settings. My information comes from an inmate. I hope this does not make unbelievers (about these difficulties) of the readers. Additionally, it would be interesting to know if this is a wide-spread occurrence.

A fundamental issue is that some religions stress the pursuit of conversions. This seems so strong a drive that it may corrupt and significantly undermine rehabilitation of those not inclined to conversion. This would be a tragic loss in so many respects that it is incumbent upon us to assure thoughtful and just consideration of our options.

Posted by: Jeannie | Oct 17, 2004 3:17:13 PM

Hi Jeannie-

I'm sorry to hear about the issue occuring in PA system. In Florida the chaplins in the facility must provide for all religions. It does not mean the Chaplin handles all the services or ceremonies, it means he or she must make a way for different beliefs to be celebrated. In fact, Chaplins are not all from the Christian faith (many people assume that.)I have known Christain Chaplins who have gone out and purchased items needed for Wicken ceremonies. I know Muslim chaplins who buy items needed for Communion services. It is also required that the Faith-base dorms provide for all faiths.

Here are some of my thoughts about the idea of conversion. If a person is going to change their behavior there needs to be some form of conversion. Conversion is a change in the nature, form, or function of something. It could be religious in nature or a change of thought process. But in some sense there is a conversion (change). I have been working in the behavioral field over fifteen years and I can tell you the people who become successful in changing their lives go through some kind of conversion. Check out an AA meeting if you want to see it action.

On a personal note, I found for myself that conversion of faith has been a life changing experience. For me and for my husband, who is incarcerated. Take care and thanks for letting me share my thoughts.

Posted by: Cheryl | Oct 18, 2004 8:32:59 AM

I've been researching the issue (and hopefully my research will be published in the not-so-distant future) and find the problem fascinating. While I'm not entirely sure Cutter will have much of an impact on the faith based prison movement ...I think the issues are tangentially related, at least as presented... but Cutter is definitely a precursor to a larger battle over the faith-based prison movement.

My research so far makes me somewhat skeptical of the faith-based prison movement. Studies on reduction in recidivism and improvements in safety are, in a word, flawed. Many people self-select, the criteria for participation in god-pods and Faith Based Prisons eliminate those most likely to reoffend or to cause trouble while in prison.

And even if the program does marginally impact the sucess of prisons, we can't isolate religion as the reason for that success. For example, maybe all we need is better trained prison workers, a more rehabilitative approach, nicer facilities, better prospects for parole, better safety, or something else to make prisons more effective.

Further, people are coerced into entering religious programs. Individuals receive preferential treatment, better programs, staff, attention, etc. The most effective (and, in my mind, most problematic) inducements are a much safer environment (mainly because individuals cannot enter these units if they have disciplinary problems and are kicked out if they have such problems while in the faith-based prison or unit), and better prospects for parole.

Maybe religion does improve prisons, but studies to that effect are fatally flawed. And even if religion can make prisons more effective, that doesn't mean we should discard the First Amendment.

Thanks for the initial post and discussion on point so far.

Rich Fields
University of Chicago Law School '06

Posted by: Rich Fields | Nov 21, 2004 8:05:37 PM

Keep up this discussion and visit my blog. The two young people in the picture are my kids. They would never have been born if the young prison school teacher had not told me God could change my life. You have to factor in the power of belief and faith to understand what a FAITH-based program can elicit from those who Believe. Without that understanding the discussion is a moot point.

One more thing, that prison school teacher became my wife, hence the mother of those two kids. The other gentleman is my brother.

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Posted by: | Oct 14, 2008 5:58:02 AM

the Aleph Institute provides educational and spiritual outreach to Jewish inmates nationwide; widely recognized as asset to sentencing and corrections, especially by judge jack weinstein

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