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December 18, 2008

Will the Obama Administration embrace and promote the faith-based prison movement?

One of the few positive sentencing and corrections stories these days involves the apparent successes of faith-based prisons.  A helpful reader sent me this news story from Oklahoma, headlined "Faith builds character: Inmates learn new ways to rebuild their lives," on this topic. Here are snippets

Behind the iron bars and razor wire of Oklahoma's largest prison for women, a quiet miracle is taking place. Nearly 200 inmates at Mabel Bassett Correctional Center are living in separate pods from the general population where they are finding hope for themselves and their families through character development and spiritual renewal.

"This is an incredible program," said Ilinda Jackson, director. "It instills character in these women, teaches them how to deal with the behaviors that got them here, and addresses how to change." She said the voluntary program is changing the atmosphere at the prison.

Misconduct is way down among participants. "There's less violence, a higher level of accountability. The women are taking responsibility for their lives," she said.  The Faith and Character Community Program, now in its second year, is divided into two groups, women pursuing a faith-based solution to their problems, and those seeking character development without the faith element.

Millicent Newton-Embry, warden at Mabel Bassett, said the program has changed the environment of the entire prison, not just the faith and character pods, as women in those pods have influenced inmates in the general population.  Misconduct reports are down 18 percent prison-wide since the programs were initiated. "We have less people fighting over things like curling irons," she said. "The staff has more time to do important case management work because they're spending less time mediating conflict.  The inmates are resolving these things themselves.

"Studies have shown that religion, when it's voluntary, can be foremost in changing criminal thinking, and criminal attitudes, for the long term," she said.  Outside volunteers teach the religious elements of the faith pod to avoid any church-state issues.

I have long been disappointed that academics and researchers have not yet paid sufficient attention to the faith-based prison movement.  But the Bush Administration was an avowed supporter of the movement, though I think the administration could and should have done even more to facilitate the movement's growth and development at both the federal and state level.

President-elect Obama has expressed some support for some Bush Administration faith-based programming, but I have not seen any explicit discussion from the Obama team about faith-based prison.  I am hopeful that the new administration will openly embrace and actively promote the faith-based prison movement if and when there is continuing reason to believe that the movement is having a positive impact on both offenders and public safety.

Some related posts on faith-based prison programs:

December 18, 2008 at 10:51 AM | Permalink


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Using faith-based prisons can change the prison system from a rotating hotel for social rejects to a place or rehabilitation and hope. Hopefully faith-based advocates can keep the pro-God banter to a minimum and the ACLU can see the virtues of such programs without falling victim to their urge to sue.

Posted by: JT | Dec 18, 2008 11:17:42 AM

Uri Timor's doctoral dissertation at Hebrew University (submitted sometime in the 1990s) included a phenomenological analysis of a rehabilitation program in Israeli prisons that had a strong religion component. I remember reading it when I worked for the Prisoner Rehabilitation Authority. The folks I worked with at the time, who were very focused on re-entry, said they were happy to collaborate with anyone who was willing to help, and that included an eclectic mix of independent contractors, kibbutzim, and... religious, Ultra-Orthodox Yeshivot. For some folks, that's what it took to reduce recidivism to a minimum.

Posted by: Hadar Aviram | Dec 18, 2008 11:34:57 AM

I agree with JT. The lowest common denominator of the faith and non-faith based is this: "You are not a sardine, not a corrections number. You are a person."

That concept is in opposition to the usual "brutalization effects" that work like chain reactions inside most prisons, from the petty to the severe, that ignite otherwise. This is what is wrong with so many of the abstract and dehumanizing "zero tolerance" policies.

Posted by: George | Dec 18, 2008 11:50:48 AM

Faith is only a half-assed lobotomy. While it destroys all reason in the pre-frontal lobe, it may not eradicate the "mens rea." Indeed, faith is nowadays the chief cause of "mens rea" as witnessed by Muslim terrorism.

A true lobotomy, a la "One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest" would be better, cheaper and quicker.

Posted by: Jimbino | Dec 18, 2008 12:04:03 PM

Jimbino, Nurse Ratched is the personification of the brutalization effect.

Posted by: George | Dec 18, 2008 1:45:43 PM

My recollection was that the suit in Iowa was by a religious group called "Separation of Church and State" and they had two issues
1) Iowa should not pay a religious organization to recruit prison inmates as members.
2) The religious organization had biased their sample to inflate their cure rate for drug treatment.

The ACLU played either no role or a minor role in that case.

There are a number of programs for prisoners provided by churches or individuals motivated by religion that are provided at no cost to the state and the ACLU has not objected to any of them. Why should they?

OTOH people that are interested in helping prisoners for non-religious reasons are considered suspicious by prison officials. They have very good reasons for being suspicious.

Posted by: John Neff | Dec 18, 2008 5:20:56 PM

"I have long been disappointed that academics and researchers have not yet paid sufficient attention to the faith-based prison movement. But the Bush Administration was an avowed supporter of the movement, though I think the administration could and should have done even more to facilitate the movement's growth and development at both the federal and state level."

The govt is doing a pretty good in this area considering the tough economic times we are facing. The Faith-based movement started by Bill Clinton with his welfare to work program under welfare reform. The movement has been instrumental in the forwarding the NCLB Act as well. There are several programs, before and after school, to help students with academic-specifically reading and math.

I am sure Obama will support faith-based efforts for prison programs. There are programs that work but that the ACLU enjoy being the barrier to the success of these programs. The govt has made it very clear that there is to be no proselytizing on GOVT dollars--that is not to say that there should be NO God in the program.

Posted by: | Dec 19, 2008 12:03:13 PM

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