Prison ministry questions

image002BAlan Cooperman at the Washington Post has an interesting story about a federal faith-based initiative to prepare inmates for release. I think it’s a very important story and I could not agree more with Americans United for Separation of Church and State in raising concerns. Having said that, let’s look at how Cooperman frames and discusses the story:

The Justice Department plans to set aside cellblocks at up to half a dozen federal prisons for an ambitious pilot program to prepare inmates for release. But it has produced an outcry by saying that it wants a private group to counsel the prisoners according to a single faith.

Taking Cooperman at his word, I searched for all the outcry over this program. The only story I could find was his. And the only group raising concern that I could find is Americans United. There are other things, too. For instance, the phrase “up to half a dozen.” This reminds me of when I would go shopping with my mom. When we were deciding what to buy, she would always round up the price of what I wanted. A $40 blouse for me was “almost $50″ while a $60 blouse for her was also “about $50.” Not fair. Anyway, I see no need for the word “dozen” to describe a number between zero and six.

The Justice Department plans, about which no specifics are given, apparently do not establish which religion the program should be, but they rule out both secular programs and interfaith programs. I would gripe about my hard-earned tax money going to any religion or religious program that I don’t believe in, but the aformentioned “outcry” is more narrow in scope:

The Washington-based advocacy group Americans United for Separation of Church and State charged in a letter to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales that the Justice Department’s Bureau of Prisons has tailored its bidding requirements to fit one particular program: an immersion in evangelical Christianity offered by Charles W. Colson’s Prison Fellowship Ministries.

Outlining 10 ways in which the Bureau of Prisons’ request for proposals from private contractors dovetails with Prison Fellowship’s “InnerChange” program, Americans United contended that the plan is unconstitutional and urged Gonzales to withdraw it. Gonzales has not responded to the April 19 letter, Americans United said.

Okay, so there we get to the story. This is part of an ongoing campaign by Americans United against InnerChange! It would be nice for the reader to know about American United’s campaign, but Cooperman doesn’t mention it.

Independent experts on constitutional law asked by The Washington Post to review the bidding documents also questioned the plan’s legality.

I’m all for qualifying the word experts, but what does independent mean? Especially considering that the two independent experts he goes to are Erwin Chemerinsky, an attorney who has argued in front of the Supreme Court for the National Organization for Women and Douglas Laycock, who has writen for the not-so-independent publication The American Prospect. Don’t get me wrong, I am a fan of Laycock. I just don’t think it serves anyone’s interest to refer to him as independent. No one is independent. And I bet we could play a six-degrees-of-separation game between Americans United and these two attorneys and we could end in one or two steps.

Cooperman quotes a Justice spokesman who says the plan is noncoercive and constitutional. He also says the bidding requirements were not tailored to Prison Fellowship Ministries.

Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman Traci L. Billingsley said $3 million has been appropriated for the program. She said it is possible that the bureau could approve several proposals and set up, say, a Roman Catholic program at one prison, a Jewish program at another and an evangelical Protestant program at a third.

“It’s early to speculate, but we hope we’ll have multiple contractors and multiple locations,” she said. She added that she did not know whether inmates would be allowed to transfer between prisons to participate in a program of their choice.

handsSounds about right. The whole point of faith-based initiatives is to treat all religions as equally valid and give them equal access to the huge piles of cash for social programs we give out every day. As a taxpayer who does not want to fund any religion other than my own or give any charity at all to any religion other than my own, these programs infuriate me. The thing is that even though Americans United has its blinders on against Chuck Colson, the religion with the most notable prison ministry is Islam. And even if the rules were written to support Prison Fellowship (which was never substantiated in this piece), other religions could quickly adapt their programs to fit the guidelines. Stephen Schwartz’s analysis in The Weekly Standard gives a descriptive look at the Wahhabism practiced in prisons today:

Soon after September 11, 2001, I and a group of individuals with whom I have worked first began consultations on the problem of radical Islam in prison. We identified change in the prisons as a leading item in the agenda of our nation in defeating the terrorist enemy. Some of us had received letters from American Muslim prison inmates complaining that radical chaplains had harassed and otherwise subjected moderate Muslims in prison to humiliation, discrimination, confiscation of moderate Islamic literature, and even physical threats.

Muslim chaplains have established an Islamic radical regime over Muslim convicts in the American prisons; imagine each prison Islamic community as a little Saudi kingdom behind prison walls, without the amenities. They have effectively induced American authorities to establish a form of “state Islam” or “government-certified Islam” in correctional systems.

Cooperman frequently writes about the same issues that Americans United cares about. He also frequently takes the Americans United angle. I think Cooperman is one of the religion beat’s best technical writers. He’s enjoyable to read. He also explains complex issues in a way that’s easy for the reader to understand. I just wish he would have looked more broadly at this issue. Programs like these could produce an outcry among Americans if they got the bigger picture of what state-sanctioned religious activity in prisons could mean to them personally and to our country’s Constitutional disestablishment of religion. Perhaps he can cover those things in a follow-up. In the meantime, my church will continue our prison ministries without government funds.

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  • Daniel

    While I agree no one is an independent, it’s interesting you don’t dissect the neocon, anti-Muslim writing and pedigree of Schwartz. Why should we accept his conclusions as fact, especially when they come from the pages of the Weekly Standard which has a poor track record on prediciting harms.

    Iroically, the cite you link to by Laycock was his defense of conservative jurist and academic Michael McConnell. Maybe he’s more indpenedent then you think.

  • Mollie

    I don’t know anything about Schwartz, and I’m certainly no neo-con, but I linked to the piece because it was informative and interesting. It remains so.

    If you want the rest of us to buy your argument that he is anti-Muslim, perhaps you could substantiate it. Not that it really matters since he wasn’t one of the individuals quoted by Cooperman. And I certainly didn’t claim he was independent. I claimed he was writing for The Weekly Standard! Sort of the opposite of claiming he was independent.

    He does go to pains to distinguish between Wahhabism and other forms of Islam, for what it’s worth.

    Further, I failed to understand your swipe against The Weekly Standard. But, again, I was just pointing to the article because it was interesting and establishes the extent to which Wahhabism exists in state, local and federal prisons. Not that that’s news for those who have been tracking conversions to Islam among the incarcerated.

  • Daniel

    Well, given that Kristol and fellow neo-Cons helped push and orchestrate the Iraq war based, in part, on assumptions about Hussein and Muslims that have turned out not to be true, I think their assumptions (and biases) about Islam should be suspect. Schwartz has been a one-man writing machine about Islam that supports both the Weekly Standard’s neo-con, anti-Islam agenda and a general anti-Muslim agenda in general.

    His assumptions about Wahhabism need to be taken with a grain of salt and recogniizing he has a bias that must be filtered for those of you who have been tracking conversions to Islam among the incarcerated.

  • Daniel

    Let me clarify. While Terry seems suspicious of people who want to suggest there is a moderate, Muslim community, we also need to be suspicious of those who suggest that Muslims and Islam is only focused on terrorism and a “clash of civilizations.” That’s a disturbing thread of many comments on Get Religion on any topic about Islam.

    The post right under this one is a perfect example.

  • Barnabas

    First, there is not a shred of evidence cited to suggest that the proposals were actually tailored to benefit any particular ministry.

    Second, the “single religion” accusation is misleading. At any time at any prison there are seperate religous services going on in different places. No one has to associate with a program unless they desire to do so. Here, there will be multiple sites, with different programs, from which to choose. Even if you choose a program, you don’t have to worship if you don’t want to.

    As with the Innerchange program, what is being funded is not the church prison ministry but reentry programing, which could include everything from literacy training to financial management and job skills. As noble as the author’s church ministry is, I would be willing to bet that it doesnt provide comprehensive programing in these areas. What distinguishes the faith based program is that it couples programing with the energy and hard work of hundreds of volunteers that demonstrate every day that they love these inmates as children of God.

    As someone who walks the streets every day with former inmates, I will pray that this program continues and is a success.

  • Michael Rwe

    Exactly what would our tax dollars fund, separate cellblocks for a religious program? What is the big deal about that? The cellblock must be guarded and maintained, anyway. Will money fund chaplain salaries and literature distribution in these cellblocks? What? It just sounds like money will keep cellblocks running separately. So what?

  • Michael

    But if, at the beginning, only one faith gains from the government grants, it’s questionable. The fact that the well-connected Colson is the recipient makes it all the more questionable.

    The government isn’t supposed to use tax-dollars to promote a single religion. Creating separate prison units where money will be handed over to a single religious group intent on prostyletizing as part of the transition out of prison is suspect.

  • Barnabas

    “The fact that the well-connected Colson is the recipient makes it all the more questionable.”

    No recipient has been named! This is a request for proposal going out to the world in the same fashion as other gov’t contracts. The Prison ministry associated with Mr. Colson learned about it the same time as the rest of the world. That is one of the distressing distortions to the article.

    Right now, the Government is paying to house, feed and gaurd prisoners, even those who are active in Christian programs at their prison. With these contracts, the government will continue to house, feed and gaurd the inmates. The only thing different is that the government is allowing faith based groups to compete for contracts to provide the programing.

  • David

    For what it’s worth, Prison Fellowship is an interdenominational faith-based program. In context (America’s early history), separation of church and state was established to prohibit the government from sponsoring/subsidizing a “particular” church (e.g. Anglican, Puritan, Baptist, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, etc.) to the exclusion of others. (The “other” part of the First Amendment – which seems to be ignored in the conflict is: . . . or prohibiting the free exercise thereof – the founding fathers did not have a “problem” with faith per se.)

    Ironically, Baptists (among other Christian “minorities”) were at the forefront of the the disestablishment clause because those groups were often discriminated against (or even persecuted) by the “state church.” While I understand the concerns of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Wiccans, agnostics, atheists and ??? over the “separation” issue, the fact is that all of these groups (or at least “organizations” they might create/sponsor) have access to government funds to perform religious or non-religious philanthropic services for prisoners, the homeless, disabled, etc.

    We would all be better served by simply accepting the fact that America is composed of both religious and non-religious people (and that BOTH of those groups pay the taxes that are funding the various social programs that are either funded or subsidized by our government entities). Whether it is the religious or non-religious who want to serve those in need of assistance, just let them do it (in their own way) and stop haggling over it.

    Personally, I have deep moral problems with my taxes being used to fund abortion services (and Thomas Jefferson would side with me on the immorality of coercing a citizen to fund something that violates their conscience). Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) our country has become so diverse it is impractical (if not impossible) to perfectly accomodate everyone’s religious/non-religious convictions. So . . . keep it simple. Make the funds available to both groups and simply evaluate them on the results achieved (instead of the religious/non-religious means used). In the case of Prison Fellowship, as I understand it, they have one of the best track records of any group in terms of lower recidivism.

  • Michael

    Except for cases of rape and incest, there is not federal funding of abortions under the Hyde Amendment. While Planned Parenthood gets money, t hey cannot use it to provide abortions or even proviode abortion referrals, as far as i know.

    Prison Fellowship is “interdenominational” in the sense it isn’t connected with a denomination. However, it is unquestionably fundamentalist Christian and its leader–who is close to the White House–is considered a prominent Christian Evangelical.

  • tmatt


    You have lost your mind.

    In what way have I ever expressed doubt about the reality that there is such a thing as “moderate” Islam and that, in this day and age, moderate Muslims are not actually living under the threat of punishment from traditional and extreme forms of Islam? (That is, BTW, one of the themes of the Weekly Standard piece.)

    What I have said, several times, is that it may be a form of cultural Imperialism for people in the west — be they liberals or White House politicos — to claim the right of declaring that a kind of moderate, “Georgetown” friendly Islam is the normative view of Islam on the global scene. I keep asking for more information, for example, on why Sunni and Shiite Muslims want to slaughter each other.

    There is no one Islam. There is no one Islam to declare as a religion of peace. The reality is much more complex than that and, thus, quite dangerous to moderate Muslims.

    Also, name a single thing I have ever written suggesting that all Muslims are seeking terrorism or cheering for it?

    Do you read this blog at all? I would appreciate an apology sooner rather than later.

  • Daniel

    is that it may be a form of cultural Imperialism for people in the west — be they liberals or White House politicos — to claim the right of declaring that a kind of moderate, “Georgetown” friendly Islam is the normative view of Islam on the global scene. I keep asking for more information, for example, on why Sunni and Shiite Muslims want to slaughter each other.

    This is what I mean about a mindset that focuses only on the violence and terrorism instead of the sense that the normative view of Islam is not Sunni and Shiite Muslims wanting to slaughter each other. Since you appear to have decided that the the moderate view is “cultural imperialism” than you apparanly don’t accept it.

    So what is your perspective on Islam? Do you see it more like the Muslims throughout Europe and the US who go to work every day, are incorporated into their communities, who want to live their lives as faithful Muslims and productive citizens, or do you see that as “cultural imperialism” and prefer the Weekly Standard/Kristol line which assume Islam is inherently evil (and thus not a religion of peace) and dangerous and focus instead on bombings and terrorist attacks?

    I do read the blog and, quite frankly, I find your positions very confusing and unclear. Maybe you are just asking rhetorical questions or trying to be the Socratic professor. If so, than I apologize.

  • Jeff Sharlet

    You write that Douglas Laycock should not be described as “independent” because he writes for the “not-so-independent American Prospect.” How is the Prospect not independent? Do you mean that because it’s liberal, it’s not independent? Are you conflating “non-partisan” and “independent”? Worse, are you conflating “centrist” with independent? Alexander Cockburn’s “Counterpunch” newsletter, pretty left, is independent, as is Cockburn, a hard leftist; Caleb Stegall’s conservative webzine “The New Pantagruel” is independent, as is Stegall.

  • Mollie


    I just think the descriptor “independent” is bad. It doesn’t really say anything or help the reader know anything.

    And though I linked to the Prospect, I was just doing it to make the point that he has affiliations. If anything, though, I would say that Laycock (who I like on issues other than this one) is someone who is very supportive of faith-based initiatives, in a Monsma, Esbeck “neutrality” kind of way.

    I actually think that Laycock is an excellent person to interview for the article, I just don’t think he should have been described as independent. Just because, again, no one is independent. We all have ties — no need to pretend we don’t, you know?

    Also, I’m not conflating non-partisan or centrist with independent. I think non-partisan and centrist are pretty bad descriptors, too.

  • tmatt


    Can you read?

    I am not saying that moderate Islam is cultural imperialism. I am saying that Americans — left and right — who want to assume that moderate Islam is the norm in the world are being cultural imperialists.

    I am also saying that the American press needs to be giving us real, solid information on the doctrinal and cultural differences between Sunnis and Shiites that are at the heart of their, yes, violent conflicts now, in the past and in the future.

    There are multiple Islams. We cannot deal with all of them the same way. It would be stupid and, yes, cultural imperialism for us to insist that we get to decide which Islam is the “real” Islam.

    There are major differences between the Islam of history and the values of the West. Often they have led to violence. Sometimes people in the West have been willing to live in peace or submission — the meaning of the word “Islam” — to Islam’s union of the mosque and the state. In some cases, Muslims have willingly lived in the West under its cultural demands.

    There is no one model. But the clashes have been real. Have you ever studied the Freedom House global map of religious-liberty conflicts? Have you ever noticed any patterns?

  • Daniel

    You have lost your mind.


    Can you read?


    I’ll let my comments stand for themselves. I’ve apparantly touched a nerve or I’ve completely misunderstood what I see is a willingness to take an anti-Islam stance whenever possible. Maybe you are just being Socratic or playing the Devil’s advocate. If so, then it wasn’t clear to me. That happens online.

  • tmatt

    No, Daniel, you are not responding to my actual arguments. If you want to read what I have read and then respond to its contents, please do so.

    OK, let’s try Dafur. Is it wrong to say that the brand of Islam being practiced by the government there is different than the form of Islam advocated by those who want to see the slaughter stop?

    Yes (I assume). OK, what are the doctrinal differences in these two forms of Islam?

    What are the doctrinal differences that are shaping events in Iraq and Iran (although there has been SOME coverage there as of late)?

    I think that religious beliefs matter and that they affect the news. Thus, I think that readers deserve coverage of these kinds of issues.

    So let’s see if I understand you: I am anti-Islam because I oppose the efforts of some movements within Islam to kill members of other Muslim movements and to deny them basic rights? Did I get that straight?

  • Daniel

    I’m saying that you tend to focus on the most negative perceptions of Islam. You mentioned the neoconservative Freedom House to bloster your point. Freedom House is funded by a number of neoconservative and conservative foundations which have the same alarmist views about Islam as the Weekly Standard. It’s a specific poltical and worldview which is unquestionably legitimate, as legitimate as the “cultural imperialist” views advocated by Goergetown scholars you were so dismissive of.

    I think there are doctrinal differences within Islam. I don’t think we understand them and we need to learn more. I assume that is your basic point and, thus, we share that.

    As an observer of your blog–and the comments of other contributors–it does seem that if there is a negative view of Islam or a negative spin on a story about Islam, you seem pretty quick to take it. Again, maybe you are just trying to be the Devil’s advocate or somehow be Socratic. It’s just an observation.

  • tmatt

    When in doubt, hit people with a neo-con label. You have to watch out for those pro-human rights neo-cons.

    Folks, if you want to dig into some of these issues please see:

    Then see:

    Also, please note that Daniel has still not addressed the fact that he continues to maintain — on the cultural imperialism issue — that I am saying precisely the opposite of what I am actually saying.

    I plead guilty to having a negative view of forms of Islam that persecute other Muslims, Christians, Jews, anamists and others. I want to know more about the doctrines that separate the various branches of Islam. I think it would help US policy be a bit less, well, stupid.

  • http://n/a Greg

    Lutheran organizations including those affiliated with the LCMS recieve public money. Faith based initiatives lesson the corrosive effect of an omnipresent goverment on the Christian Church.The Government has invaded education, social services for the poor and health care. The Government siphons massive amounts of money in the form of huge taxes. There is not a strong public consensus to limit the scope of Government. Faith based initiatives and school vouchers prevent this massive government spending and activity from taking the form of a defacto establishment of atheistic naturalism as the official religion of America.