As part of our America Behind Bars series, we have been discussing the increasing number of Americans flowing in and out of our prisons; many find themselves back behind bars within three years of being released. What is there to say about these repeat offenders? It is that prison time alone isn’t enough to keep convicts out of trouble. However, faith-based initiatives and institutions across the country seem to be making a difference. They combine church and state, which inevitably makes them controversial, but let’s look at the results.
In 1997, Prison Fellowships introduced its own faith-based initiative, the InnerChange Freedom Initiative for prison inmates, with support from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (under then-Gov. George W. Bush), as part of a new rehabilitation program chartered by the state legislature. So how is this program different from other rehabilitation programs?
The most effective rehab programs include academic and vocational training, cognitive skills programs, and drug abuse treatment, according to a 2003 University of Pennsylvania study. The difference between InnerChange and other programs is that InnerChange inmates participate in Bible study groups and support groups to help improve their relationship and communication skills. They also get regular mentoring and a Bible education.
The study evaluated a group of 177 inmates participating in the Texas InnerChange program. We can see a difference between the two approaches in the numbers. The study compared the InnerChange inmates with those who met the criteria but didn’t enter the program. A total of 17.3 percent of InnerChange inmates were arrested within two years of release, compared with 35 percent from a group from the general inmate population. Eight percent of InnerChange inmates and 20.3 percent from the matching group were incarcerated within the same time frame. Of course, the program is entirely voluntary and around 25 percent of those in the study either quit or were pulled out by prison staff. Still, the recidivism rate for those in the program is low when compared to similar programs.
However, the organization, which has expanded its programs into Arkansas, Minnesota, Kansas, and Iowa, has taken a hit since its loss in a lawsuit brought to court by the Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) against its Iowa facility. AU had claimed that the programs violate the establishment clause in state and federal constitutions. The Associated Press recently reported that Iowa Gov.Chet Culver cancelled further state funding past June 30 to comply with the court’s decision. There has been no word yet on whether Prison Fellowships will continue operating that facility. Private donations will certainly play a large role in that decision.
The question here is not just whether faith-based initiatives should have access to taxpayer money, but also how to reconcile this controversial state funding with what we want as a society: to turn our languishing, tax-guzzling inmates into productive (and taxpaying) citizens. The debate is between our church and state clause in the Constitution and another one of our founding principles: the Puritan work ethic. However we choose to rehabilitate inmates, America would gain more from investing in human capital than from shuffling its citizens in and out of prisons.