World Net Daily is reporting a big victory for Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship ministry in the 8th Circuit Court.
A federal appeals court has ruled that a voluntary faith-based prison program that has proven effective in reducing recidivism by half can move forward at an Iowa prison…
The ruling, by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Judges Roger Wollman and Duane Benton sitting as a panel for the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, reversed major parts of a district judge’s earlier ruling.
Meanwhile, at Dispatches from the Culture Wars, Ed Brayton has what Paul Harvey calls “the rest of the story,” including a revelation that substantiates my earlier remarks about prison ministries: if they work, it’s because of the people, not because of God.
Despite the triumphalist spin from the WND, the ruling in this case is not a lot of good news for PF. The court found, among other things, that
- the prison was giving discriminatory rewards to prisoners based on professed belief (a classic 1st Amendment violation)
- the Prison Fellowship program was given the authority to issue disciplinary reports on inmates, resulting in prison-imposed punishments
- the court specifically ruled that PF flunked the Lemon test by providing special benefits to certain inmates based on belief
- the court also found that state aid was administered unconstitutionally
- the court explicitly rejected PF’s claim that per diem aid was indirect and therefore not unconstitutional
- the court sent the case back to the lower court
Big-time First Amendment violations going on, and plainly documented. This is going to be trouble for Colson’s group, especially if it ever makes it all the way to the Supreme Court. But there’s a part of this story that I find particularly interesting, and it concerns an inmate who was kicked out of the program despite the fact that he was making significant improvements. Ed Brayton quotes:
For example, in dismissing one inmate, the entire treatment team met and discussed his progress, concluding: “your conduct has been excellent according to security standards, and you are a hard worker. With you as a member you have always completed your work and assignments, however, you are not displaying the growth needed to remain in the program. Your Focus is not on God and His Son to Change you.”
Here we see very clearly two things. First, the improvements we sometimes see in prison programs like PF are the secular result of having a lot of concerned and caring people interacting with prisoners to give them support and guidance in the rehabilitation process. This inmate was responding well to the program, in terms of his improved behavior, despite the fact that his faith, if he had any, was weak at best. He was improving, but God was not part of the process.
The second thing we see is the real reason why people volunteer for PF: it’s not out of a desire to reform convicted criminals, it’s simply a desire to obtain some kind of validation for their own religious beliefs. Despite the glowing praise PF workers heap on the results of their program, if a prisoner comes along who fails to pay them back, by “giving God the glory,” he’s outa here. We don’t care how much he’s improving, if he won’t encourage us in our own religious superstitions, he can go to hell.
Prison Fellowship is not a charitable organization. The people who work there may well be doing some good, but their work is an investment, not a donation. They expect to be repaid, and the payment they demand is that prisoners have to help them prop up their sagging faith. Over all, I’d tend to say that PF may indeed provide some benefit, but their help is built on a shaky foundation, and probably won’t last, as it becomes more and more clear that this is just the work of man.