DES MOINES, Iowa A federal judge has ruled that Prison Fellowship's InnerChange Freedom Initiative violates the First Amendment's clause barring government from the establishment of religion and has ordered the program at an Iowa correctional facility be closed within 60 days and $1.5 million in state funds be repaid.
"The overtly religious atmosphere of the InnerChange program is not simply an overlay or secondary effect of the program it is the program," U.S. District Judge Robert Pratt of Des Moines wrote in a 140-page decision June 2.
Pratt's ruling followed a trial last fall in which Americans United for Separation of Church and State, on behalf of some Iowa inmates and Iowa taxpayers, alleged that InnerChange represented state funding of religion.
The judge said the program, which is administered by the faith-based Prison Fellowship Ministries founded by Charles Colson to promote good-citizenship qualities in prisoners, amounts to the establishment of an evangelical Christian church within the walls of a state prison.
"Though an inmate could, theoretically, graduate from InnerChange without converting to Christianity, the coercive nature of the program demands obedience to its dogmas and doctrine," Pratt wrote.
Mark Earley, president and chief executive officer of Prison Fellowship and a former Virginia attorney general, said Pratt's decision could have national implications.
"This decision, if allowed to stand, will enshrine religious discrimination. It has attacked the right of people of faith to operate on a level playing field in the public arena and to provide services to those who volunteered to receive them," Early said in a written statement June 3.
"In addition, the decision fosters a 'lock 'em up and throw away the key' approach to fighting crime. It assumes by warehousing criminals and providing no services to help them change, that society will be safer when they get out. Nothing could be further from the truth.
"The courts took God out of America's schools, now they are on the path to take God out of America's prisons," Earley said.
Earley told The Des Moines Register, "I think it is a shame that the court has ruled against one of the few programs that have been demonstrated to offer real hope for stemming the tide of habitual crime."
Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United, praised the outcome of the case, which had been considered a test of President Bush's support of faith-based government services.
"We are absolutely delighted that the court found significant constitutional defects in a government-funded prison program that involves religious proselytizing or religious evangelism," Lynn told The Register. "If the reasoning in this case is followed elsewhere, and I suspect that it will be, it will pose an enormous challenge to faith-based programs at the state and federal level in many kinds of institutions."
Prison Fellowship has operated InnerChange at Iowa's Newton Correctional Facility, about 23 miles east of Des Moines, since 1999 and currently serves about 210 inmates. The voluntary program is open to inmates of all religions, and anyone can choose to stop participating at any time, Earley told Baptist Press last fall. Leaders disclose up front that the program is Christ-centered and its teachings are based on the Bible. Similar programs are offered in Texas, Kansas, Minnesota and Arkansas.
"We have 2 million people in prison today in America; 600,000 of them will get out this year and they are returning to prison at a rate of over 50 percent after three years," Earley told Baptist Press last fall. By contrast, he noted that the recidivism rate for offenders who graduated from the Prison Fellowship program in all four states where it has operated ranges from 8 percent to 11 percent.
Americans United opposes the fact that 40 percent of InnerChange's budget in Iowa comes from the state, but Earley said every dollar allotted from public funds pays for nonsectarian or nonreligious aspects of the program, such as helping inmates without a high school diploma earn an equivalency certificate.
"It's a holistic program, so we are not only doing faith-based things but we are also doing educational things and vocational things in training as well," Earley had said. "The reason the states are interested in this program is because by reducing the recidivism rate, the rate at which prisoners return to prison, they are promoting public safety. Every time a prisoner is out and commits a crime, it's another victim.
"And they are also reducing the burden on the taxpayer," he added. "This program, from the state's point of view, has a secular purpose and that purpose is to keep the public safe. And secondly, to reduce the burden on the taxpayer of this revolving door where criminals are coming out, committing crimes, coming back in and costing the taxpayers some $40,000 a year [per prisoner]."
Earley said InnerChange will appeal Pratt's decision to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis while the Iowa attorney general's office reviews the decision. The judge's orders to end the program and pay back state funds will be suspended while an appeal is pending.
"We firmly believe the 8th Circuit will overturn the decision of Judge Pratt and protect the rights of all Americans, even those in prison," Earley said.