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Keeping the faith
By Ann Coppola, News Reporter
Published: 03/10/2008

Faith Political pundits say they can’t remember a U.S. presidential campaign where religion became such a lightning-rod issue so early on, if even for a short time. Between Mitt Romney’s Mormonism and the Mike Huckabee Christmas ad telling everyone “what really matters is the celebration of the birth of Christ,” it seemed that faith was going to be a major presence on the campaign trail.

While that issue may have faded with the candidates, the role of religion in offender rehabilitation is drawing some politicking of its own. The federal government demonstrated its own faith in correctional “faith-based programming” this past fall when the White House Faith-Based and Community Initiative hosted the first ever White House National Summit on Prisoner Reentry.

In addition, the Departments of Justice and Labor are partnering their own faith-based offices to help corrections departments work with faith-based and community organizations, or FBCOs, to provide offenders with pre-and post-release services.

At the same time, there has been an emerging trend of faith-based programs facing lawsuits and losing government funding. The Iowa Department of Corrections’ InnerChange Freedom Initiative, a biblically based reentry program, recently lost its state funding for crossing the line between the constitutional separation of church and state. The outcome has many people wondering where that line is and just exactly what it means to be a faith-based program in corrections.

“Unfortunately, it gets all mucked up,” says Brad Lambert, co-director of Connections to Success. The Missouri faith-based nonprofit matches offenders pre- and post-release with mentors from the faith community through its “Pathways to Success” program.

“The term ‘faith–based’ is confusing to a lot of people,” Lambert explains. “We are a faith-based organization, but we’re not religious-based. We’re not affiliated with any particular religion, faith, or theology. We are faith-based in that we reach out to the faith community to be partners with us through volunteering and mentoring.”

In November 2005, the DOL chose Pathways from more than 2,500 applicants to receive one of 30 grants for the President’s Prisoner Reentry Initiative. PRI links corrections departments with FBCOs to help ex-inmates find work, housing and other services. The DOJ says there is no special treatment for faith-based groups over secular ones.

“The government does not and may not promote religious over nonreligious approaches,” says Steve McFarland, the director of the DOJ’s faith-based initiatives. “Whether they are faith-based or not, that’s not so important. There is no affirmative action for faith-based groups.”

When it comes to government funding, faith-based does not mean religious-based. In fact, legally, it can’t. According to the DOL Equal Treatment and Religion-Related Regulations, “an organization could not use direct DOL support for inherently religious activities, such as worship, religious instruction, or proselytization,” which means to convert or attempt to convert an individual to one’s own religion.

“[Direct DOL] support could not be used, for example, to conduct prayer meetings, worship services, or any other activity that is inherently religious,” the guidelines go on to say. At Connections to Success, mentors are trained to keep conversion out of the program.

“We have a training curriculum for our mentors and one of the things we talk about is we’re not there to bring the offender to a relationship with God,” Lambert explains. “We’re there to help them achieve whatever goals they’ve outlined. If they have a spiritual goal we’ll help them, if they don’t, so be it.”

“That word the government uses, “proselytizing,” we’re very careful about not stepping across that line,” he adds. “We’re there to help them. We’re not there to convert them. We tell the mentors if you want to offer a Bible study, that’s fine, but make that off-time. Don’t make that part of the curriculum.”

In the Iowa program, which was not a PRI grantee, participants had to be willing to accept a Christian-based program. The court ruled that the program was endorsing religion and revoked its state funding. Even in many privately funded programs like the Georgia Department of Corrections’ faith- and character-based dormitories, proselytizing is outlawed.

“The dorms are interfaith and multi-faith,” says Toriarn Weldon, program coordinator for the GADOC dorms. “There’s no proselytizing, and it’s not a prerequisite for the offender to have any religion. We have Muslims, Jews, Christians, American Indians, Wiccans, even Atheists.”

There are ten of these pods throughout the state housing between 50 and 100 offenders each. Volunteers from all areas of the faith community work with the inmates. Contrary to popular belief, the dorms are not the correctional version of a spa, filled with perks for the repenting offender.

“These guys work very hard,” Weldon says. “There are no chaise lounges or wide-screen TVs. It is a regular dorm just like any other in the general population, but it’s the atmosphere that is totally different. Disciplinary reports have dropped by 95 percent.”

Positive statistics are a common refrain from faith-based programs. Still, there haven’t been enough studies to exclusively link the faith element to the progress, whether it’s reduced recidivism or fewer disciplinary reports. Even without the hard data, the DOJ is convinced it's onto something.

“The faith-based community is a prime venue for recruiting mentors who see these returning offenders as their fellow human being,” McFarland says. “For the faith-based individual, the offender is just as much a child of God as you are. Why would you want to drive two hours into the Mojave Desert to wait in line for half an hour in order to spend twenty or thirty minutes with a guy you wouldn’t want your daughter around? The faith-based community has an answer. That’s why they are indispensable partners.”

Despite this positive attitude, there are barriers that sometimes prevent corrections departments and faith-based organizations from working together.

“Often there is a cultural difference, a language barrier,” says one DOL official. “FBCOs are very interested in helping, and in corrections they have policies and procedures that must be followed to ensure safety. Sometimes the FBCO might not think those rules apply to them.”

As a link between the corrections and faith communities, Pathways experiences this dilemma first-hand.

“Unfortunately, we’ve had churches not want to work with us because they felt so strongly that their first goal was to help the offender have a personal relationship with Christ,” says Kathy Lambert, co-director of Connections to Success. “We had to say no, that’s not what we’re about.”

What faith-based programming should be about, its advocates say, is returning a rehabilitated offender to a safer community.

“We tell the guys you have to get the community to put faith back in you and you need to put your faith back in the community,” Weldon says.

What 2008 has in store for correctional faith-based partnerships remains uncertain. Still, regardless of who lives by the words “seeing is believing,” it seems for now corrections will continue to maintain its belief in faith-based programming.

Related Resources:

Information from the White House National Summit on Prisoner Reentry

Learn more about the PRI grants for 2008

More on the Georgia faith-based dorms


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