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Faith-Based Programs in Prisons

With unprecedented number of ex-offenders expected to be released from the nation's prisons, corrections officials sought innovative ways to increase the chance that fewer of them will return. Many officials turned to religious programs that seek to change inmates' internal motivations as well as external behaviors. The Bush Administration strongly supported such programs, as a key focus of its Faith-Based and Community Initiative, an effort to encourage religious charities and other nonprofits to provide social services.

The biggest experiment in religious prison programs during the Bush years may have occurred in Florida, which operates three "faith and character-based institutions" - entire prisons that provide religious programming aimed at rehabilitation. More commonly, programs are dedicated to units within a prison, or prisoners receive help from volunteer mentors coordinated by faith-based groups.

Faith-based prison programs typically include training in such secular topics as "life skills," including reading, managing personal finances, and dealing with family issues. Some programs also aim at character transformation, sometimes with a deeply religious component.

Among the questions about the programs is whether they are truly effective in their ultimate non-religious goal of reducing recidivism. At this early stage of the programs' development, insufficient research exists to supply a solid answer.

And some groups have charged that, even if the programs eventually prove to be effective, they are nonetheless illegal. Critics worried that the programs blur the legal line separating church and state have mounted challenges to the programs' constitutionality in courts around the country.

At the heart of the legal disputes is whether the government is merely accommodating prisoners' right to freely practice their faith - a constitutional protection that must be afforded to those under its custody, who do not have usual access to religious services - or actually supporting religious indoctrination, in violation of the law. To operate within the bounds of the Constitution, prison programs must:

  • be "neutral," without showing preference to one faith over another, or to religious over secular programming;
  • not mandate participation but allow inmates' to choose voluntarily to attend; and
  • ensure that religious content is not financed with taxpayer money.

In articles, feature interviews and legal analyses, the Roundtable has looked at four major legal challenges that could impact future faith-based prison programs, as well as other partnerships between government and religious groups. Those items are listed below under the name of each lawsuit, following some Roundtable articles on faith-based prison programs in general.

General Information on Faith-Based Prison and Re-entry Programs

Roundtable News Articles


Probe of Religious Discrimination in Prisons Includes Faith-Based Ministries,
Feb. 12, 2008

Program Seeks to Prepare Ex-Cons for Work, Provide Model for Social Service Vouchers,
Aug. 7, 2007

Faith-Based Mentoring Program Aimed to Help Ex-Cons Find Jobs, Stay out of Prison,
March 13, 2007

States Pursue Faith-Based Prison Programs Despite Murky Legal Climate, Jan. 9, 2007

Ohio Group Details Ways to Expand Faith-Based Prison Programs, Nov. 28, 2006

Government Puts Faith in Religious Prison Programs, Aug. 22, 2006

Faith-Driven Program Continues to Build on 40 Years of Service, Jan. 26, 2004

Private Prison Operator Offers Faith Programs to Inmates, April 29, 2003

Roundtable Interviews

Chaplain Gary Friedman of Jewish Prisoner Services International, Feb. 13, 2008

Steven T. McFarland, of the Justice Department's Faith-Based Office, March 13, 2007

Americans United for Separation of Church and State (and others)
v Prison Fellowship Ministries (and others)

Americans United brought this legal challenge in 2003 against Iowa corrections officials and Prison Fellowship, which operated a pre-release program for inmates called the InnerChange Freedom Initiative in one of the state's prisons. In June 2006, a federal judge ruled in agreement with Americans United that the InnerChange program in Iowa was, in the legal jargon, "pervasively sectarian." In other words, the program was so overwhelmingly religious, there was virtually no way to separate out any secular components. Influencing the judge's decision were his findings that the program involved indoctrination in evangelical Christianity -- with no secular alternative, or alternatives for those of other faiths -- and that participants received both tangible and intangible benefits denied to other inmates. The judge's decision included a previously unheard-of order for Prison Fellowship to repay the state money it had received under contract, to the tune of $1.5 million.

In December 2007, a panel of the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court ruling that the program operated outside constitutional bounds in Iowa. Importantly, however, the appeals court panel, which included former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, reversed the district court’s order that Prison Fellowship repay the state of Iowa $1.5 million.

Roundtable Legal Analysis

Legal analysis of the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision, handed down December 3, 2007

State of the Law 2006 report and State of the Law 2006 transcript, December 2006

Legal analysis of Judge's Decision, Handed Down June 2, 2006,
U.S. District Court, Southern District of Iowa

Legal analysis of complaint, filed Feb. 12, 2003,
U.S. District Court, Southern District of Iowa

Roundtable News Articles

Controversial Christian Prison Program Cites Recent Supreme Court
Ruling in its Appeal, July 2, 2007

Controversial Christian Prison Program Loses Public Funding, June 5, 2007

Appeals Court Probes Iowa Prison Program’s Legality, Feb. 13, 2007

Embattled Christian Prison Program Asserts Its Legality, Oct. 10, 2006

Potential for Widespread Fallout in Ruling Against Iowa Faith-Based Prison Program, June 6, 2006

Arkansas Officials Believe Their Faith-Based Prison Program Unaffected by Court Decision, June 6, 2006

Federal Judge Gives Green Light to Faith-Based Suit, May 3, 2005

Roundtable Interview

Mark Earley, President and CEO of Prison Fellowship, August 22, 2006

Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Alberto R. Gonzales, et. al.

In this lawsuit, FFRF's allegations against the Justice Department focused on a residential program called Life Connections intended to prepare inmates for release. The Life Connections program's goals for personal growth include spiritual development. The lawsuit took aim at both an existing, 18-month-old Life Connections program administered through the chaplain's office at each prison -- which is designed to include a variety of faiths -- and a proposed pilot program that would have been operated by private service providers and offer counseling according to just one faith. The federal government said in October 2006 that it would cancel or alter the single-faith prison proposal.

Legal Analysis


State of the Law 2006 report and transcript of State of the Law 2006 presentation, December 2006

Legal analysis of complaint filed, Filed May 4, 2006, U.S. District Court, Western District of Wisconsin

Roundtable News Articles

Prison Bureau Requires Religious Providers to Offer Secular Program, Too, March 27, 2007

Feds Alter Plan for Single-Faith Prison Program, Oct. 31, 2006

New Lawsuit Launches Two-Pronged Attack on Federal Faith Initiatives, May 9, 2006

Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Richardson

Freedom From Religion Foundation filed this lawsuit against New Mexico and Corrections Corp. of America, which operates a Christian program in a state women's prison. FFRF contended that CCA used money directly from the public till to operate a prison in which inmates were persuaded through incentives to participate in an explicitly Christian program whose aim is to "give opportunity for inmates to grow, spiritually," all in violation of the First Amendment.

New Mexico and CCA contended that the private company used its own profits to offer a Bible-based program, open and accessible to people of all faiths, to those inmates who chose to seek a spiritual path toward rehabilitation, consistent with the state's aim of reducing recidivism and the constitutional right to freely practice one's religion.

FFRF ultimately dropped the case in July 2007, after the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation, which limited taxpayers right to sue over alleged church-state violations.

Roundtable News Articles

Lawsuit Targeting Faith-Based Prison Program Becomes "Hein Fatality," July 10, 2007   

Legal Papers Reveal Contradictions in Case Against Christian Prison Program Nov. 21, 2006

Lawsuit Targets Faith-Based Prison Program, Nov. 8, 2005

Moeller v. Bradford County

This lawsuit, filed by Americans United for Separation of Church and State in February 2005, alleged that a prison ministry called the Firm Foundation coerced inmates in Pennsylvania to pray and employed only Christian staff. The program was the Bradford County Correctional Facility's only vocational training program, and almost all of its funding came from government sources.

Bradford County settled with Americans United in April 2007, and the state of Pennsylvania reached an agreement with the watchdog group in June 2007, ending the lawsuit. The settlements require that the county and state do not fund religious activities, and take steps to ensure faith-based groups that receive public funds do not use the money for such activities.

Legal Analysis

State of the Law 2005 report and transcript of State of the Law 2005 presentation, December 2005

Legal analysis of complaint, filed Feb. 17, 2005, U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania

Roundtable News Articles

Final Settlement Reached in Penn Case Targeting Faith-Based Prison Program, June 12, 2007

Pennsylvania County Settles Lawsuit Challenging Faith-Based Prison Program, April 3, 2007

Federally-Funded Faith Group Targeted in Lawsuit, Feb. 22, 2005