Theocracy Watch XIII: Fighting Prison Theocracy

Last year, in a previous installment of Theocracy Watch, I wrote about unconstitutional government-supported prison ministries which target a literal captive audience. Many Christian evangelists view these ministries as a great opportunity to preach to those who can’t escape, as if the prisons were their own personal factories for churning out converts. Worse, the Bush administration has been all too willing to let them in, and has cooperated in setting up coercive programs that offer special privileges and luxuries to inmates who accept a fundamentalist Christian worldview. All this has happened in spite of a lack of any good evidence that these programs are any better at preventing recidivism than secular alternatives.

I have an update, and I’m happy to say there’s good news. A federal appeals court has unanimously upheld a lower court ruling that “InnerChange”, Watergate felon Chuck Colson’s government-supported prison ministry, is unconstitutional. The court found that taxpayer support of this program was unconstitutional and ruled that InnerChange would have to return all public funds it has received since June 2006.

Americans United presented evidence that inmates who took part in InnerChange were given better treatment and perks that were not available to others, including better housing and expedited access to classes required for parole. During its investigation of the program, AU discovered that InnerChange was saturated with evangelical Christianity and that staff members were frequently hostile to other faiths.

At trial, inmates testified that they were pressured to convert to evangelical Christianity, and that the beliefs of Roman Catholics and other faiths were ridiculed. The court record showed that non-Christians were frequently referred to as “unsaved,” “lost,” “pagan” and “sinful” by InnerChange staff. The program required staffers to abide by an evangelical statement of faith.

According to the New York Times, InnerChange does not plan to appeal, which is further good news. Hopefully, this decisive ruling will set a precedent that religious groups seeking to operate in prisons may not expect public support, nor may they offer special benefits or privileges to those inmates who agree to participate.

Ed Brayton offers further good news: a favorable decision in the Joseph Hanas case, which I mentioned last summer in “It’s Your First Amendment Too“. Hanas, a Catholic who was convicted of a minor drug offense and required to attend a drug rehab program run by a Pentecostal church. The program directors repeatedly denigrated his faith, reportedly calling it “witchcraft”, and pressured him to convert; when he refused to attend the program further, he was sent to prison. The ACLU filed suit on his behalf, and a federal judge has finally ruled in his favor. (The full ruling isn’t online yet. I’ll post more details on this as they become available.)

Encouraging as these victories are, we must never let them make us complacent. The religious right is tireless in their effort to inject their religion into all facets of everyone else’s life, and often, when they’re defeated in court, they simply move to a new venue and set up shop there with the same tricks. The Freedom from Religion Foundation’s newsletter Freethought Today reminds us of this; in its latest issue, it points out that

[a]n Associated Press survey in October found that at least ten states now run faith-based prison programs. Texas officials have opened a dozen faith-based dorms for about 1,300 inmates…

Eight InnerChange programs operate in Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Iowa and Arkansas.

The Florida Department of Corrections itself runs three prisons, two for men, one for women, as “faith and character-based institutions. Five more “faith-based” facilities are being considered.

The Corrections Corporation of America, the largest for-profit operator of prisons [for-profit prisons?? —Ebonmuse], has “faith pods” housing for about 1,660 inmates at 24 prisons in 13 states.

The constitutionality of programs like these has never been upheld by the courts, and rulings like the most recent one against InnerChange give friends of state-church separation another valuable tool to fight them. Nevertheless, lest we grow too optimistic, we must always remember that there are still religion pushers who will try to get around the First Amendment, by fair means or foul. We must press ahead to overturn the rest of these programs, for an infringement on any American’s rights – even the rights of an inmate – inevitably makes us all less free.

From the Mailbag: Minds Do Change
New on the Guardian: Atheists Fighting for Choice
In Defense of Radical Individualism
The Astounding Hypocrisy of Anti-Refugee Christians
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.