|Faith-Based Dorms Aim to Give Fla. Inmates Hope in Prison and Out|
|By Lakeland Ledger|
When he was a boy, Danny White would pretend to be sick to avoid going to church, even though his grandfather was a Baptist preacher.
'I always knew the right way. It was just me. I strayed away,' he said.
White, 37, is in Polk Correctional Institution in Polk City serving nine years for possession and sale of cocaine. It's his third time in prison. He's come back around to God, though. This time, he knows he can't pretend.
'I've been in drug programs that it's 'Fake it till you make it.' Here, God sees everything. If you fake it, you're only faking yourself. You can't fake your way through this,' he said.
White is one of 128 inmates in Men of Character, a faith-based program at the prison that gathers an assortment of religious believers into one dormitory. Like other faith-based prison dorms, it is an effort to promote better behavior and to keep offenders from returning to jail once they're released. Unlike some faith-based programs whose constitutionality has been challenged, this one does not promote any one religion.
Prison officials, inmates and at least one graduate of Men of Character say the program works for those who stick with it.
'This is my 21st year (in prison),' said Charles Anderson, 48, serving a 25-year-to-life sentence for armed robbery and attempted murder but eligible to be released in 2006. 'I've been through every program there is, and without doubt, this is the best. If you put yourself into it, you get a lot out.'
Faith-based social programs, including prison ministries, have become popular with federal and state government leaders in recent years. They contend that such partnerships are able to instill values and transform lives in ways secular programs cannot.
DORMS ARE LOW-COST AND POPULAR
The program at Polk Correctional is one of 10 in Florida state prisons. Three of them started this year, and all began within the last 31/2 years. There is a long waiting list to get into the dorms.
There are 955 beds available in the 10 programs, but as many as 9,775 of the state's more than 73,000 inmates are eligible and have expressed interest.
The faith-based dorms followed a pilot project at Tomoka Correctional Institution in Volusia County that began in November 1999. A bill passed by the Legislature in 2001 authorized the creation of six more. The Department of Corrections took the initiative to start the others. Costs are minimal, say prison officials, because the dorms use volunteers and the existing staff and facilities.
The 12-month program works like this:
*Most of the prisoners in the program are selected from a computer-generated list. There are several criteria: Inmates must be eligible to live in a dorm instead of a cell; they must have less than three years left before they could get out; and they must be free from disciplinary referrals for at least 90 days. If an inmate wants to participate and there is no faith-based program at his prison, he is transferred.
*There are no restrictions on inmates' faith. Even those who specify 'no preference' can be admitted. Men of Character includes Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists, Muslims, Jehovah's Witnesses and others. Staff and volunteers are not allowed to try to convert inmates to a particular faith.
*Prisoners in the program live in 'pods,' groups of eight inmates whose bunks are partitioned in the two open bays in the Men of Character dormitory. Each pod functions as a support and accountability group. The men have a morning devotion, share concerns, pray together and keep a check on one another's behavior.
*Mentors -- volunteers who come into the dorm on a regular basis -- talk to the inmates about their personal lives and their faith and offer advice and counseling.
*In addition, there are classes, either given by volunteers or on video, for inmates to learn about the teachings of their faiths or about general life-management skills, such as finances, parenting and sexuality. Each bay of the dorm has a small library in which inmates can read or watch instructional videos. The books and videos are donated by religious groups because the state cannot purchase them without violating church-state separation. There is also a small, empty space at the rear of each bay set aside as a place for private prayer.
After completing the program, an inmate may apply to transfer to an institution closer to his home or to a work-release program.
HELPING INMATES CHANGE
Participation is voluntary, and, other than air-conditioned libraries in the dorms, inmates get no special privileges, such as early release or time off from work details. In fact, Warden Don Merritt said, inmates in Men of Character have it tougher than the rest of the prison population.
'Other inmates have free time. They're in the common rooms, watching TV or playing cards. They're not improving themselves. These guys are improving themselves,' he said.
The idea, said Abdul Al-Khatib, Polk Correctional supervising chaplain, is not that inmates are instructed in a particular faith but that spiritually minded inmates are allowed to practice their own faith and draw strength from one another.
'We aid those men to have faith and cultivate it with those who do to have more,' he said.
Some inmates, like White, had already become interested in religion before being asked whether they wanted to join a faith-based dorm.
'Before I signed up for this program, I had completed a program at Gainesville Correctional Institution. I started working on my spiritual life. For a while I was trying to do it by myself, but I realized I needed help,' he said. 'This program really opened my eyes about how to care and love other people. It doesn't matter what your faith or your race is. I'm really happy to be here.'
James Weaks, 34, serving four years for auto theft and forgery, had his doubts about the program when asked whether he wanted to join.
'I said 'No.' I was just wild. Then I went back to my bunk and I thought, `I've got three kids. I need to make a change,' ' he said. 'At first, I thought it wasn't going to work for me. I had a negative attitude I had to put aside. Now, hey, I don't want to leave. On Thursdays, my pod mates and I get together. If you've got a problem, you can talk about it. You're around friends, someone to love you.'
PRISON OFFICIALS SEE BENEFITS
Al-Khatib began pushing for a faith-based dorm after hearing about the pilot program at Tomoka Correctional. After the Legislature gave the green light for others, Al-Khatib got Men of Character started in November 2001.
'We thought, we can get 128 men, isolate them from the (prison) population and work with them. We just believed we had the volunteer base, the dedication and the commitment to bring about change in the lives of these men. It's a greater opportunity and a greater challenge,' he said.
Warden Merritt said he had seen the benefits of a faith-based dorm when he was at a juvenile facility, Hillsborough Correctional Institution.
'I believe inmates do have better behavior and lower recidivism. They're more respectful of authority, more willing to follow the rules and friendlier to their fellow inmates. They're less concerned about personal things and more concerned about their spiritual well-being. They're concerned about the future,' he said.
The Rev. Alex Taylor, director of chaplaincy services for the state Department of Corrections, said the program creates an alternative culture inside a prison.
'There tends to be a secrecy. You keep your nose out of the other guy's business and don't speak up if he's doing something he shouldn't. This turns that around and says, `I'm interested in the welfare of the guy next to me,' ' he said.
CRITICS OF 'GOD PODS'
Critics of some programs that segregate religious inmates in dormitories or cell blocks -nicknamed 'God pods' -- object to them on the grounds they tend to favor Christianity over other religions and violate the First Amendment's prohibition against government-sponsored religion. Some of these programs have been challenged in court.
A First Amendment watchdog group, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State in Washington, D.C., filed a federal suit in February against the 'InnerChange Freedom Initiative,' a Christian dormitory-based program at an Iowa state prison. InnerChange programs are in prisons in three states and are run by Prison Fellowship Ministries, founded by former presidential adviser Charles Colson, who served time in prison for his part in the Watergate scandal.
Americans United charges that InnerChange uses state funds to convert prisoners to Christianity and that inmates in the program receive special privileges. InnerChange has responded that state money is kept separate from the sectarian portion of the program and that accommodations given prisoners are not extraordinary.
Men of Character seems to have avoided constitutional obstacles by taking a nonsectarian approach, said Joseph Conn, director of communications for Americans United.
'There's not anything wrong with a Christian program. It just shouldn't be paid for with state funds. This (Men of Character) doesn't seem to raise any of those constitutional questions,' he said.
The Rev. Ron Warlick, the chaplain in charge of Men of Character, said the aim is to be as broad as possible.
'In a state-funded program, it's not my job to proselytize. It has to be open. We're teaching universal principles. They'll work on anyone,' he said.
In fact, the Florida Department of Corrections approached InnerChange about running its pilot program at Tomoka Correctional, but James Cowley, former national operations director for InnerChange, turned it down.
'We don't do multi-faith programs. You can't hardly get Methodists and Baptists together, much less Muslims, Jews and Wiccans,' said Cowley, who now runs Institutional Programs, a consulting company in Tulsa, Okla.
FAITH AND TOLERANCE
The inmates in Men of Character say they have learned more about their own faiths and learned tolerance of other faiths.
'It prepares you to go back in society. If you can live with these guys, you can live in society,' said Barry Grant, 35, who was released May 17 after serving four years for lewd and lascivious conduct on a child under 16.
Cowley, who was a warden for more than 20 years before working for InnerChange, is skeptical how much tolerance goes on.
'It sounds good, but the guys spend a lot of time arguing and debating with each other,' he said.
Weaks, who is Muslim, said because most of the other inmates and volunteers are Christian, he had to adjust to the conversations and presentations.
'At first, it was hard to listen to. Now, if someone's speaking that way, I can get something out of it,' he said.
The chaplains at Polk Correctional concede they have to try to support non-Christian inmates as best they can because it is difficult to find volunteers in some of the other religions. It is easier for Muslims like Weaks because Al-Khatib is also Muslim. But Al-Khatib said he is the only Muslim chaplain in the Department of Corrections.
Taylor, the DOC official, said about 65 percent of volunteers are Christian, reflecting the demographics in the state. It is up to the inmates, he said, to apply the broad lessons presented in the faith-based program.
'When we have a topical study, such as anger management, the teachers don't exclude references to faith. The inmates are urged to make it real,' he said.
LONG-TERM BENEFITS STILL UNKNOWN
About half of all released prisoners are back in jail within three years. One of the aims of faith-based dorms is to reduce that figure. But for all the claims among their supporters that faith-based dorms reduce recidivism, there is scant data to support them. As of June, 114 inmates had graduated from Men of Character, but only 10 have been released. So far, none have returned.
Taylor said to date 347 prisoners have graduated from the program and 72 have been released from Florida prisons. The former inmates are being tracked, he said, but they have not been out long enough to gather data about their possible recidivism.
'We're not quite ready to do the study. Maybe by the end of the year,' he said. Cowley, the former director of InnerChange, said flatly that faith-based dormitories by themselves do not reduce recidivism. He commended the Department of Corrections for starting the program but said the chief difficulty for released prisoners is that they lack many of the supports -- stable family, housing, employment -- that average people have, which is the reason that many fall back into crime. If faith-based programs do not follow up with prisoners after they're released, they may do little good, he said.
For example, InnerChange mentors stay in touch with former prisoners for three years after they're released. The result is an eight percent recidivism rate, as opposed to the 50 percent rate nationwide, Cowley said. By contrast, he was skeptical that programs like Men of Character would keep prisoners out of jail.
'God pods are a wonderful management tool for wardens because the guys in the program don't get into trouble. But as far as having any impact on recidivism, there's very little evidence. They just don't go far enough because very little aftercare takes place,' he said.
Al-Khatib agreed his program needs more mentors, volunteers who will stay in touch with released prisoners.
'(It's) a critical area of need, people to ask these guys, 'What are you going to do when you get out? What are your needs? How can we help you meet them?' ' he said.
Dwight Ross of Tampa, who was in the first group of graduates from Men of Character, was released in February.
Ross, 44, is a member of the Hebrew Israelites, a small, predominantly black religious group that follows the teachings of their leader, Yahweh Ben Yahweh. He said that chaplains Warlick and Al-Khatib had done an especially good job of encouraging his faith and checking on him since he has been out.
'Some chaplains give a certain amount of attention, but then when you talk, it's in one ear and out the other. These guys are really willing to work with you. They went the extra mile, and that makes a difference,' he said. 'Chaplain Al-Khatib asked me to write a 90-day release plan. Then he checked with me and asked, 'Did you do this?' '
Ross said he was more fortunate than some prisoners -- he had a wife and family to come home to. He is on disability and trying to help re-establish his family's car-detailing shop.
Ross praised Men of Character in terms that President Bush, who supports faith-based programs 'for their power to change lives,' would admire.
'To me, people in prison have character defects. This program . . . deals with morals and good behavior 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It became a part of us,' he said.
'All my life, I'd been from one institution to another. I was never taught how to be good. This program gives you the opportunity to be good.'
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