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October 14, 2007

Is faith the best thing to happen to prisons since ... the faithful started prisons?

Thanks to this post at C&C, I noticed this long AP article entitled "Faith-Based Prison Programs Flourish."  The whole piece is a must-read, and here are some excerpts:

Killer-turned-artist Manny Hernandez on the prison where he's finishing an eight-year term: "It's a blessing to be here." Fellow murderer and inmate Raymond Hall likens it to heaven. "I love this place," says their warden, Cynthia Tilley. "It's so calm."  They're praising the Carol Vance Unit, founded in 1997 on the outskirts of Houston. It's the oldest of a rapidly growing number of faith-based prison facilities across the nation. 

Even as they proliferate, fueled by the fervor of devout volunteers, these programs are often criticized. Evidence that they reduce recidivism is inconclusive, and skeptics question whether the prevailing evangelical tone of the units discriminates against inmates who don't share their conservative Christian outlook.  However, evidence is strong that violence and trouble-making drop sharply in these programs, and they often are the only vibrant rehabilitation option at a time when taxpayer-funded alternatives have been cut back. 

Inmates at Vance offer another compelling argument.  Unlike many of America's 2 million prisoners, they feel they are treated with respect. They have hope. "A bunch of cats in prison, they never had anyone show them love — even their mother and father," said Anzetta Smith, who served 18 years for attempted murder before graduating from Vance this year. "You get in the program, and everybody shows you love."

Impressed by the Vance operation, Texas officials have opened a dozen faith-based dorms elsewhere in the state, accommodating some 1,300 inmates.  At one dorm, at the maximum-security Allred prison near Wichita Falls, infractions by the inmates dropped more than 90 percent once they entered the program....  "In my other prison, on a daily basis there was rape, drugs," said Raymond Hall, who was convicted at 16 of murder and hopes to complete his 15-year sentence in early 2009.  "When you come to Carol Vance, it's like a load is lifted. It's like heaven."...

Elizabeth Alexander, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project, has qualms about whether the faith-based programs are fair to non-Christian inmates but hesitates to criticize them because they fill a void. Two decades of tough-on-crime policies have sharply reduced the number of rehabilitative prison programs, she said, and volunteer-driven religious initiatives offer states a low-cost way to meet some of the demand.

In all, at least 10 states now have faith-based prison dorms.  The Corrections Corporation of America, which operates private prisons, has separate "faith pods" housing about 1,660 inmates at 24 prisons in 13 states. "The inmates have far fewer discipline issues," said CCA's John Lanz.

While disciplinary trends have been easy to track, it's been harder to compile data proving that faith-based programs succeed at their core mission — reducing recidivism.  Nationally, federal experts estimate that two-thirds of inmates released from state prisons are re-arrested for serious offenses within three years, and 52 percent go back behind bars.

Proponents of faith-based programs insist they can achieve lower rates. But supportive data remains scarce, and some skeptics say the programs "cherry-pick" motivated inmates who would be less likely to re-offend under any circumstances. Only about 10 percent of the inmates released from Florida's faith-based prisons have been reincarcerated.  But an independent study last year also found very low recidivism among Florida inmates with similar characteristics who didn't go through the faith program. Similarly, proponents of the InnerChange program at Vance have touted a 2003 study asserting that only 8 percent of its graduates returned to prison.  But critics belittled that finding, saying it measured recidivism only for inmates who completed the program and got jobs, not for the larger number who dropped out and had a high recidivism rate. "It's not that these programs are a bad idea," said Dan Mears, a Florida State University criminologist. "But there's no good evidence that they work."...

Prison Fellowship's president, former Virginia attorney general Mark Earley, said any move to curtail evangelicals' volunteer work in prisons would undermine the prospects for greater nationwide emphasis on rehabilitation. "If you excluded faith-based groups, you're excluding the largest number of people willing to be involved," he said. "There's not a whole lot of other people lining up at the prison doors."

Some related posts on faith-based prison programs:

October 14, 2007 at 04:12 PM | Permalink

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I am graduating from Seminary May 28, 2009. I hope to attend law school this year.

Posted by: Mary Washington | Mar 12, 2009 12:36:34 PM

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