Colson’s Fake Prisoner Rehab Numbers

The Atheist Experience blog has an interesting post about how Chuck Colson and Prison Fellowship faked the data to make it appear as though taking part in their Christian rehabilitation program had a much higher rate of success in avoiding recidivism than it actually did.

What Colson claimed was that they studied the recidivism rates of prisoners who completed his ministry program and compared them with those who did not. Recidivism means that within a certain amount of time after they were released from prison, they were reincarcerated for committing new crimes. Colson always argued the study demonstrated that those who completed the program experienced a significantly decreased recidivism rate.

What he didn’t tell you is that the standards for “completing” the program dramatically skew the numbers in his favor. A person is only defined as a graduate if they stick with the program for a period of time, then are released from jail, and get a job after their release. In other words, a person who sat in on the ministry classes for the required amount of time, left the program, and then couldn’t find a job, wouldn’t be considered to have completed a program. Therefore, if they were arrested later, that would be counted as a win for Colson, because they didn’t do what they what they were supposed to, therefore this proves that failing to “complete” the program was correlated with their arrest.

But this is a total cheat. If you simply removed the ministry from the equation, and only compared prisoners who got a job to those who didn’t get a job, obviously the employed prisoners would be far less likely to go back to jail. They don’t need to steal stuff to get money! So here we have Chuck Colson deliberately excluding the group most likely to go back to jail, and then giving his ministry credit for something that happens after they leave. The study doesn’t even attempt to demonstrate that people who take the program are more likely to get jobs.

In fact, what the study showed when you looked at the raw numbers was that among prisoners who simply entered the program — including both graduates and “dropouts”, the recidivism rates were slightly higher than the control group that wasn’t involved at all. Or to put it simply, if the program had not existed at all, it’s possible that fewer of them would have returned to jail.

I’m certainly not surprised by that. Prison Fellowship brought in a lot of money, including a lot of government grants, based on its claim to be effective in turning prison inmates into good, law-abiding citizens.

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  • fastlane

    You should see the pass rate for my math classes….

  • However, those who returned to crime after their release were more likely to tithe some of their ill gotten gains. Win!

  • busterggi

    That’s not skewing the results – that’s just based on which ones were ‘real’ Chrisitans.

    If Chuck were alive I’m sure he’d say something like that.

  • I am stunned — STUNNED — that a criminal who obstructed justice in the Watergate scandal would be dishonest in his reporting! Glad I was sitting when I read that.

  • Randomfactor

    Scientology has a similar scam called Criminon, and they fudge the rates the same way.

    There’s money to be made pretending to be religious.

  • a miasma of incandescent plasma

    There’s money to be made pretending to be religious.

    They’re not pretending…

  • d cwilson

    You’re kidding yourself if you think many in the top leadership positions aren’t pretending. Especially in Scientology. They know a good scam when they see it.

  • Slate had an article about this years ago:

    Money quote:

    Overall, the 177 entrants did a little bit worse than the controls. That result ought to discourage InnerChange’s advocates, but it doesn’t because they have just ignored the failure of the failures and focused on the success of the successes. […]

    InnerChange program manager Jerry Wilger says he doesn’t know much about research, but he doesn’t think it’s fair to count the performance of the people who dropped out of his program against him, a fair-sounding objection that misses the point entirely. If InnerChange’s 177 entrants were truly matched to the control group but ended up having more recidivism, then either the apparent success with the graduates was due to “creaming” or the program somehow managed to make its dropouts worse than they were to start with.

  • This is the same nonsense the “natural family planning” folks pull when they claim a ridiculously high success rate of 99.5%. They only count those who successfully follow the highly rigorous and difficult to maintain regime to the letter. They don’t count those who get pregnant because they failed to follow the rules correctly.

  • josephyaroch

    There is a reason why medical researchers use the intention-to-treat statistical analysis; this is what would be appropriate for the recidivism study. Even ITT can be fudged, if not applied correctly, but when used appropriately, it is very helpful.

  • As I said the other day, it’s too bad Colson didn’t die sooner, a lot sooner.

    His “ministry” was known to be a scam at least 20 years ago.

    At least Nixon, the scumbag that HE was, never pretended to have GOD on his board of directors.