Iowa Officials End Contract With Prison Program That Pushed Fundamentalism

Officials in Iowa have decided to sever ties with the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, a controversial fundamentalist Christian program that became the focus of an Americans United lawsuit.

Officials terminated the program last month. “There will be no funds allocated or applied in any way,” Iowa Department of Corrections spokesman Fred Scaletta told the Des Moines Register.

InnerChange is a project of Charles Colson’s Prison Fellowship. In 1999, Iowa officials decided to set up the program in a special wing at the Newton Correctional Facility. Millions of dollars were subsequently funneled into the program, despite its fundamentalist Christian approach.

Americans United, representing inmates, their family members and taxpayers, sued the Iowa Department of Corrections over its support of InnerChange. A U.S. District Court ruled that InnerChange immersed inmates in religiosity and should not be funded with public dollars, a decision that was later upheld by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

During the course of the litigation, Americans United discovered that inmates who participated in InnerChange received benefits not afforded to other inmates. For instance, InnerChange inmates were given better housing, quicker access to classes needed for parole and more contact with family members.

Moreover, InnerChange personnel and material often singled out other religions for degrading treatment. For example, InnerChange personnel told participants that a pope would be the Antichrist, belittled books of the Catholic version of the Bible and warned that inmates would suffer eternal damnation unless they became evangelical Christians.

AU asserted that the program was so saturated in fundamentalism that it could not be funded with tax dollars. Professional chaplains’ associations agreed with AU. At the appellate court level, the American Correctional Chaplains Association, the American Catholic Correctional Chaplains Association and Jewish Prisoner Services International filed a joint friend-of-the-court brief urging the 8th Circuit to strike down the program.

In their brief, the groups stressed that they believe in the importance of giving inmates access to religion but argued, “no private contractor may disparage the religious belief of an inmate, [or] coerce or harass inmates to change religious affiliation. Attendance at all religious activities is voluntary and unless otherwise specifically determined by the Warden, open to all.”

In an editorial, the Register supported the decision to end public support for InnerChange.

“Iowa should continue to make its prisons open to all religions, so that inmates can continue to exercise their constitutional rights to practice their own faiths,” opined the newspaper. “What the state cannot do is give special access to any religious group to proselytize inmates or give special favors to those inmates who participate.”