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.

About Adam Lee

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

  • SteveC

    The Houston Press has had a couple articles about Innerchange since 2000. Why do they only have to give back funds received since 2006?

    One from Sep 2003 (I don’t know why the link has restaurants in it)
    http://restaurants.houstonpress.com/2003-09-18/news/doing-time/

    Another one from Dec 2000:
    http://www.houstonpress.com/2000-12-07/news/from-cells-to-souls/1

  • velkyn

    I’m also confused by the “for-profit” prisons. What the heck? This reminds me a bit of when I tried to be in the Air Force. In Basic, you basically had to church on Sundays. You could theoretically decline but then you got some work to do. Everyone went because it was one of the rare times tha the DIs weren’t in your face and you could sit still for a moment. Talk about carrots and sticks to get the pews full.

  • Ric

    “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.”

    Or they stay in the same venue and disguise their tactics (cf. intelligent design). But you’re correct: they’re tenacious little buggers.

  • obscurifer

    Weird. The Innerchange web site is claiming this ruling is a huge victory, because they don’t have to pay back funds from 2000-2006.

    http://www.ifiprison.org/generic.asp?ID=7277

    When I was reading their press release, I thought for sure that I had landed on Bizarro World.

  • Joffan

    What’s the problem with for-profit prison administration? Nobody expects the prison warders (for example) to do their jobs on a voluntary basis; they get paid (although not very much, I hear). If a business can run the prison to meet the regulations and make a profit on the contract, I don’t see what the issue is. The government isolates itself from cost uncertainty; the business has an opportunity to make money.

    Personally I would say that, in many areas, the more any government leaves operation to business while keeping tight hold of regulation, the better. Running prisons requires a few special powers but only “on their patch”; not like say the police or military.

  • Eric

    Joffan,

    What’s the problem with for-profit prison administration? Nobody expects the prison warders (for example) to do their jobs on a voluntary basis; they get paid (although not very much, I hear). If a business can run the prison to meet the regulations and make a profit on the contract, I don’t see what the issue is. The government isolates itself from cost uncertainty; the business has an opportunity to make money.
    Personally I would say that, in many areas, the more any government leaves operation to business while keeping tight hold of regulation, the better. Running prisons requires a few special powers but only “on their patch”; not like say the police or military.

    You want an example of how this works? Go to Mexico and THEN talk to me about how great privatization is for prisons/government insitutions. Privatization is a terrible idea, whether under religious reasonings or business.

  • Joffan

    Eric, are Mexican prisons run by non-government businesses? If so, for how long has this been so? The government has reponsiblity under any system to scale the system appropriately and regulate effectively. Long-term, poor conditions are still a government problem.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    If a business can run the prison to meet the regulations and make a profit on the contract, I don’t see what the issue is.

    I see two big problems with the idea of a for-profit prison.

    1. How exactly could a prison make money, other than by using the inmates as slave labor? This is completely orthogonal to the actual purpose of prison – to reform inmates, not to exploit them – and creates far too much possibility of abuse of people who have no way to resist. Even if you’re in favor of free markets, for a market to work there has to be choice. If you don’t like the job you’re doing, you should have the right to quit and seek another, thereby creating an incentive for businesses to offer the safest, most lucrative and useful jobs possible. How do you suppose that system of incentives will work in a prison? What does capitalism tell us would happen in a market where employers could offer any job they pleased and employees had no choice but to accept?

    2. Running a prison as a for-profit business creates a serious perverse incentive: suddenly there’s a business whose profit model depends on people being imprisoned, and more, depends on as many people being imprisoned as possible for as long as possible. This is exactly what we don’t need in America, which already imprisons more people both in absolute terms and per capita than anywhere else on Earth (including the massive communist dictatorship of China). It’s as if we had a business whose profits depended on how much pollution it could produce.

    The purpose of the justice system should be to reduce our prison population, not to increase it to satisfy the demands of corporate profits. In a system where anyone stands to make money from imprisoning more people, it will be far too easy to lose sight of what prison is supposed to be for in the first place.

    These problems are not contingent issues like abuse of inmates or dangerously inadequate staffing in the name of profits (although I’m sure those would also occur). Both of these problems are intrinsic to the very idea of a for-profit prison.

  • Joffan

    A prison business can make money by having a service contract with the government. Working conditions and incentives for prisoners would certainly need to be regulated and any produce should be carefully controlled or recirculated within the prison system. The “free market” doesn’t apply to prisoners (by definition!); it applies to the business running the prison.

    Running a prison as a government department creates the potential for the same problems as you describe for business, as history tells. Only, it can actually be harder for a government to regulate itself.

    The purpose of the justice system, as it stands today, is pretty neutral on prison population. Right now they probably have more pressure to increase prison poplation (longer sentences for more crimes) than reduce it, from political pressure, not corporate. I think it would be great if they really had the goal you state.

    Abuse of inmates and insadequate staffing; again, not effects that are particular to privately-run prisons. Regulation and inspection; setting realistic standards and funding them; that is more the solution in those areas. Using regulated private contracts may actually force on government the discpline to undertake those properly.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    A prison business can make money by having a service contract with the government.

    I’d like to know how this is different from using prisoners as forced labor. In your conception of a for-profit prison, would the inmates have a choice in what type of work would be offered or whether they would accept that work?

    Also, how would they protest if, for example, the work offered was dangerous or degrading? In a free market, workers can leave to seek other jobs, or they can form labor unions to bargain with management. I think we can safely assume that both those options are unavailable to prison inmates.

    Running a prison as a government department creates the potential for the same problems as you describe for business, as history tells. Only, it can actually be harder for a government to regulate itself.

    This is plainly not true. A democratic system, where all citizens have a say in what the policies will be and where all citizens therefore have a right to access relevant information, is intrinsically more transparent than a privatized system where only those of sufficient wealth can see how the business is run or cast votes in matters of governance. In fact, privatized systems have a direct competitive incentive to conceal as much information about their internal operations as they possibly can. Such a system literally takes away the citizens’ right to know what is being done in their name.

    Right now they probably have more pressure to increase prison poplation (longer sentences for more crimes) than reduce it, from political pressure, not corporate. I think it would be great if they really had the goal you state.

    Thank you for saying so. And yes, I agree that the system as it exists is tilted too steeply toward punishment rather than reform. That’s why it’s so important to not create further incentives in the wrong direction by establishing a system where corporate interests stand to benefit by convincing politicians to impose longer and harsher sentences.

    In an ideal world, the purpose of prison should be to reform the inmates so they can return to society as productive citizens. Burdening the system with any additional purpose, such as using prisoners as a source of cheap labor to perform undesirable jobs, can only distract from and hamper that goal.

    Also, I’d like to raise another issue you may not have thought about: private businesses can go bankrupt. What happens if the corporation running the prison falls on lean times and has to lay off guards? What if it can’t afford to pay enough people to safely manage the inmates? What if it goes out of business? It seems to me that the only rational solution is for the government to commit to supporting a privatized prison company and keeping it in business regardless of whether it can make a profit on its own. And in that case, what exactly is the point of privatizing the prisons at all? Surely you can’t expect the free market to operate efficiently in a system where there can be, by definition, no penalties for economic failure.

  • Jim Baerg

    I think a lot of people are missing Joffan’s point.

    Something like garbage collection or road maintenance can be done by a government department or the government can pay a private corporation to do the job & check that the results are up to certain standards. If the company does the job up to those standards for less than it is paid it makes a profit. This is for profit garbage collection in a sense, but not in the sense of having each homeowner contract individually with the company to pick up garbage.

    Similarly I *think* these ‘for profit’ prisons are being run by a private company which is being paid by the government to do so to certain standards. Joffan is saying this is no more subject to abuse than having a government department run the prison.

    It would be a different case if prisoners were being handed over to the company to be used however the company wanted to provide an income to the company.

  • Joffan

    Thanks Jim; this is precisely my meaning. The government pays the prison business to run the prisons, to standards and objectives that are set and monitored by the government. The business aims to do so efficiently, in order to make a profit.

    The variety of work available to/expected of prisoners should be part of that contract, and the proceeds likewise controlled. Using prisoners as an uncontrolled source of cheap labour was not part of this concept.

    I think if you cast your eyes around the globe, you will find some pretty horrific examples of government-run prisons, although of course no true Scotsman would run such a prison ;-) .

    The possibility of the private business failing economically is an issue that requires some contingency planning. Probably the prison cannot close, and must continue working (rather than transferring all prisoners to another working prison). That might be undertaken short-term by another prison-business or the government might have to temporarily run the prison, until a contract with a new business could be arranged. The business itself would fail and be subject to the usual penalties of bankruptcy.

  • TJ

    The only problem with for-profit prisons is that it also allows the operator to bid for other contracts that let the prisoners do the work for roughly $O.60 a day while the operator receives the benefit of the contract with labor cost minimal. Sounds like a win win situation? Here is the problemaccording to the Bureau of Justice statistics in 2006 we have 2.2 million prisoners 4.5 millions probation or on parole and another 3 million ex-convicts. Which means that our rate as a population is 700 out of every 100,000 which has quadrupled between 1973 to 2000. Now you all stay with me I’ll get you through this, just giving you some fact so you can go do some studying for yourself.

    In 1980 the incarceration rate for drug offense (not violent crimes) was 15 inmates per 100,000 adults, 1996 it was 148, 2006 374 per 100,000 and in federal the numbers are even more interesting 1970 16.3 percent was with drug related crimes in 2002 a stagering 54.7 percent. WOW right haven’t gotten to the point yet here it is. Well just a couple more statistics for the record. Blacks are imprisoned on average 9.1 times as often as whites and once again according to the Bureau of justice that nearly recorder braking 70 percent of all released prisoners will be rearrested in three years. Well there is many reasons why not in this note of comments make be next time but let me leave you with this.

    If the statements that are write above are true then would we all agree that slavery still is present and that it nolonger is out in the open in face view but it now hows become instituationalized and legalized so we can’t see it. Thats your problem about for-profit prisons we have the biggest sweat shops in the world right here in America.

    TJ

  • TJ

    Jim go check your facts they are being turn over to contract for-profit corporation that then go get goverment contract for example here in the State of California it is a prisonmate that makes license plates because of the cost of labor is so low. The also will make eye wear for medcal users. Please do your home work..

  • Jim Baerg

    TJ:
    What Joffan & I were saying in *NOT* “prisoners won’t be abused in for prisons run by a private company that is paid by the government to do so”, but rather “prisoners are NO MORE subject to abuse than in prisons run by a government department”.

    In either case the imbalance of power makes abuse quite likely. Perhaps cameras in the prisons that send the images to some prisoners rights organization would help.

    BTW I too think the whole ‘War on Drugs’ policy in a disaster.


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