Prisoners and Spritual Guidance

Maureen Horcher of the Bradley University Scout has an opinion piece where she discusses how “the Newton prison in Iowa will no longer provide its Bible-based treatment program, InnerChange Freedom Initiative, come March.”

She says that this is a bad thing.

Let’s look at her reasoning:

Sadly, not many people care about the physical and spiritual health of prisoners.

We can safely assume most prisoners aren’t very spiritual – pre-prison at least. This likely plays into their ability to commit heinous crimes mercilessly.

My parents taught me that when there’s no one else to turn to in this world, we always have God.

Many of these prisoners have no one to turn to, and many of them don’t know how to incorporate God into their lives.

That’s why it’s extremely important, and obligatory, for prison personnel to offer spiritual services inside prison walls.

I’m not promoting Christianity, Judaism or any other religion. I’m saying it’s important for everyone to have a relationship with some higher power – whomever and whatever it may be.

She’s wrong on both counts.

The only statistic I’ve seen in regards to faith and prisoners comes from 1997. But it states that atheists made up only 0.209% of the prison population. Less than a percent.

Spirituality doesn’t seem to be doing it for the nearly 75% of people in prison (in 1997) who claimed to be Catholic or Protestant.

And obviously, most atheists manage to live fulfilling, happy lives without belief in a vaguely-defined higher power.

You get the feeling Horcher would be feeling differently about the program if they were advocating Islam instead of Christianity.

Horcher also mentions this stat in support of her argument:

According to an article from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a 2003 preliminary evaluation of InnerChange showed “program graduates were 50 percent less likely to be rearrested and 60 percent less likely to be re-incarcerated during a two-year follow-up period.”

I wonder whether this success rate had less to do with the religious aspect to it and more to do with the prisoners being surrounded by people caring for them, other prisoners who wanted to change their ways, and a system designed to help them out.

It’s something a properly-funded-and-executed secular program could do just as well. This program would also have the added bonus of being constitutional!

No need to indoctrinate prisoners while you’re helping them break free from the destructive path of their lives.

Let’s go back to Horcher’s first statement, too. The one about how the program is coming to an end.

The truth is the state of Iowa was paying for nearly half the program (40%) until last year. The government funding has (rightly) stopped since then. But the program can still continue.

The Des Moines Register‘s editorial nails it:

A Christian prison program that seeks to transform criminals through Jesus Christ will be allowed to continue to operate in the state prison in Newton. But the prison-ministries program will receive no taxpayers’ money, and it will be treated the same as any other religious group.

If Iowa prison officials had taken this approach in the first place, they could have saved the taxpayers of Iowa and a national prison-ministries group a three-year battle in the federal courts. There is a lesson to be taken from this ordeal: While there is a role for religion in the prison system, it cannot be sponsored by the government, and inmates cannot receive special benefits for participating in religious programs.

In the future, a corrections official said, the prison-ministries organization will be free to offer to minister to inmates – just as any other religious group can – but it will not receive special accommodations or government funding.

That is as it should be. Religious organizations have long ministered to inmates in Iowa prisons, and the prison system has long provided access to ministers for inmates of all faiths.

I would like to know what the current numbers for prisoners’ religions are. If you have any citations, please let me know!

(Thanks to Jonathan for the link!)


[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

  • Jonathan

    While researching some of her claims I came across this page detailing the AU’s lawsuit against the InnerChange program. I don’t really see how the fundamentalist Christian view points are going to help prisoners adjust to society upon being paroled. Something tells me that a program that teaches hostility towards homosexuals to people who have committed violent crimes is a bad thing…

  • http://blog.myspace.com/johnpritzlaff John Pritzlaff

    “…inmates cannot receive special benefits for participating in religious programs.”

    Unfortunately I’m pretty sure this does tend to happen. I once saw one of those MSNBC prison documentaries and in it the prison gave special treatment to inmates who were in the religion program. The inmates were housed in a separate unit, wore special white garments, and were given extra educational opportunities, among other benefits. I bet it happens at a lot of prisons.

    In that instance the program was non-denominational and supposedly was not based off of any particular religion, but there was still a requirement that the prisoners believe in some kind of higher power. Unless you count love or evolution or order as a higher power, most atheists would not say they believe in one, much less worship it. And so any religion-based prison programs that give prisoners special benefits are definitely unfair, even if they aren’t based off any one religion, as many atheists would be excluded. This is just another example of atheists being ignored as a category of people.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ miller

    I wonder whether this success rate had less to do with the religious aspect to it and more to do with the prisoners being surrounded by people caring for them, other prisoners who wanted to change their ways, and a system designed to help them out.

    Don’t forget selective effects too, which may account for at least part of it.

  • http://hoverfrog.wordpress.com hoverFrog

    I realise that it’s a little offensive to point out but there is a direct correlation between education and criminality The higher educated tend to commit fewer crimes. There is also a correlation between education and atheism. The world’s top scientists are largely atheist or agnostic.

    Rather than indoctrinate the poorly educated into a faith system to prevent them from committing crimes in the future, why not provide them with useful skills. Education enables people. It provides a opportunity for those who have turned to crime to better themselves and society as a whole. Given limited resources in the penal system shouldn’t money be better spent than on religion?

    I would like to see recidivism rates for those who convert compared to those provided with a useful (legal) skill.


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