Iowa Inmate Indoctrination On Trial

Americans United Challenges Taxpayer-Funded Program That Immerses Inmates In Fundamentalism And Scorns Other Faiths, Gays, Women's Equality

A select group of inmates at central Iowa’s Newton Cor­rec­tional Facility has been learning some controversial things lately.

They’re being told that the Bible ordains men to run households; that homosexuality is a sin; that non-Christian religions are “of Satan” and that only persons baptized as adults can get into Heaven.

Thanks to the Iowa legislature and officials at the Iowa Department of Cor­rec­tions, the inmates are learning all of this courtesy of the taxpayers. But the taxpayers may be relieved of this burden soon, thanks to a lawsuit filed by Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Newton, a medium-security institution with about 900 inmates, has been sponsoring a controversial evangelical Christian indoctrination program called the InnerChange Freedom Initiative since 1999. Founded by ex-Watergate felon Charles W. Colson’s Prison Fellowship Ministries, InnerChange seeks to rehabilitate prisoners by converting them to one ultra-conservative form of Christianity.

InnerChange first operated in a Texas prison with private funding provided by Colson’s supporters. But in the late 1990s, with “faith-based” initiatives becoming more popular, other states began extending taxpayer funding to the approach.

Iowa was the first, establishing a wide-ranging program at Newton that currently serves about 200 inmates. Participants live in a special wing where they are immersed in an evangelical worldview 24 hours a day.

As Colson has stated, “We run this program so that through the Gospel, people’s lives might be changed…so that the world around us will see the transforming power of Jesus Christ and be drawn to accept him as Lord.”

Three years ago, Newton inmates and their families contacted Americans United to express concern about the prison’s sponsorship of InnerChange. At that time, the program was funded through surcharges tacked on to telephone calls inmates made or received. Thus all inmates and their families were paying for an evangelistic approach that only some wanted or believed in.

Since then, the state has actually made the situation worse by shifting the funding burden to all Iowa taxpayers, funneling tax money through the Hawkeye State’s tobacco settlement trust fund. To date the state has made at least $1,299,232 in direct payments to InnerChange. An additional $310,000 has been allocated but not yet disbursed.

Americans United attorneys examined InnerChange and became convinced that it was a clear example of taxpayer-funded religion. When Iowa corrections officials refused to drop its sponsorship, Americans United filed suit to block further public subsidies. Arguments in Americans United v. Prison Fellowship Ministries began in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa before Judge Robert W. Pratt in late October. The trial is expected to conclude in early December.

“InnerChange is essentially a government-funded conversion program,” said Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn. “Prison Fellowship is free to run evangelism programs on its own dime but has no business handing the bill to the taxpayers. This set-up clearly violates the separation of church and state.”

During opening arguments Oct. 24, Americans United Senior Litigation Counsel Alex Luchenitser told the court that the religious nature of InnerChange is undeniable.

“InnerChange has taken over an entire unit of a state prison and turned it into an evangelical church,” Luchenitser said.

AU’s lawsuit consists of two main components: It challenges the state’s right to sponsor an evangelical program, and it asserts that Iowa corrections officials are discriminating against certain inmates based on their religious beliefs. The lawsuit maintains that InnerChange enrollees receive tangible benefits not available to those who don’t take part in the program.

The factual record compiled by Luchenitser and other members of the AU legal team, which includes AU attorney Heather Weaver and Iowa civil rights attorney Dean Stowers, bears this out. InnerChange inmates, for example, have access to separate private bathrooms instead of unscreened toilets in their shared cells. They have keys to their cells and enjoy greater mobility within the unit. Inmates taking part in the program live in a wing that was once an “honor unit” designed to reward inmates for good behavior.

Inmates enrolled in InnerChange receive guaranteed prison jobs and are paid for taking part in the program. They get special visits with family members and, unlike other inmates, have access to a computer room and a music room.

Perhaps most significantly, InnerChange inmates can more easily get credit for treatment classes that give them a much better chance at parole than other inmates.

InnerChange inmates’ parole chances are also increased by lax disciplinary procedures that keep misconduct by program inmates from showing up on their records.

During the trial, several inmates testified that the additional benefits were so desirable that they joined the program or considered doing so. Many, however, found the dogmatic approach of InnerChange impossible to square with their own religious beliefs.

“I would have to believe what they believe to get into that program,” said inmate Jerry Ashburn, who described himself as a Christian but said he does not agree with InnerChange’s views.

Muslim inmate Bobby Shelton said he also concluded that the program is hostile to his spiritual perspective.

“There is no possible way for me as a Sunni Muslim to participate without blaspheming my faith, blaspheming God,” Shelton testified.

Prison and InnerChange officials contend that InnerChange is open to all inmates.

Technically that’s true. But there’s a catch: The program is so saturated in Colson’s version of evangelical Chris­tianity that members of other faiths are unlikely to feel comfortable taking part. For inmates, the choice is either to grin and bear it and subject themselves to constant proselytization or skip the program.

Evangelical teachings pervade the material used by InnerChange staff. One class, called “Heart of the Problem,” is designed to help inmates understand “there is no human remedy for sin and the only cure is Christ….” The course’s goal is to introduce “members to the concept of healthy spiritual living.”

Another class, “Old and New Testament Literature,” lists its goal as to “introduce the member to the person of Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Savior” and “to understand their new identity as a member of the body of Christ.”

Even classes that deal with secular topics such as money management and job seeking are anchored to evangelical principles. A class called “Financial Management,” which is designed to help inmates manage money, states that it will “bluntly inform the inmate of the primary biblical principal [sic] as stated in the book of Psalms, ‘the earth is the LORD’S and everything in it.’ This includes his money.”

The promotion of evangelical Chris­tian­ity often comes at the expense of other faiths. At trial and during discovery, Luchenitser and other attorneys for AU took testimony from inmates who reported that InnerChange personnel made derogatory comments about Catholicism, Judaism, Islam and other religions.

One inmate reported during discovery that an InnerChange staffer told him, “Catholics aren’t really Christians.” Another inmate wrote in his journal, “Today we had some serious Catholic bashing in class. It hurt me very deeply. Never before had I heard serious criticism toward my faith. Spent the rest of the day trying to sort it out in my…mind and put away the bitterness.”

At trial, inmates testified that InnerChange personnel likened the pope to Hitler and to the Antichrist. Other inmates testified that InnerChange staff asked Catholics not to read from their version of the Bible. A manual used in the program advised readers to be wary of “pronouncements of church officials such as bishops, cardinals, popes.”

According to one inmate, Catholic inmates who protested against such practices “either left on their own or were asked to leave.”

Another InnerChange book goes beyond Catholic bashing and includes a “Spiritual checklist” of groups to be wary of. Islam, Hinduism, Mormonism, Uni­tarianism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Chris­­tian Science, New Age, Buddhism, Bahaism and Native American faiths all made the roster.

Further evidence of InnerChange’s sectarian nature is found in its teachings on family life. During discovery, AU attorneys found workbooks used by InnerChange staff that instruct inmates that men have a biblical duty to run their households.

“Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord,” reads one manual. “For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church….” The manual goes on to call husbands the spiritual decision-makers or “heads” of the family and advises, “Wives are to submit to their husbands in this, just as the church submits to God.”

Gay inmates were told that their behavior is sinful and advised that sexual orientation can be changed through religious conversion. Books used in the program condemn homosexuality as an “abomination” and a tool used by Satan to mislead.

InnerChange also applies a rigid litmus test to its employees. Workers in the prison program are required to sign a statement of faith that reflects fundamentalist doctrine. A contract between InnerChange and the Iowa Department of Corrections specifically states that InnerChange has the right to limit hiring based on religion.

This policy, Luchenit­ser told the court, means in effect that the state of Iowa is funding positions with an organization that “might as well have a sign on the door that says Jews, Catholics and Muslims need not apply.”

Despite this track record, Iowa officials insist the program meets constitutional requirements. Gordon Allen, Iowa’s deputy attorney general, said in an opening statement, “The separation of church and state has been maintained, and the program is constitutional.”

Arguing alongside Allen, Prison Fellowship attorney Anthony Troy went so far as to insist that denying state support to InnerChange would be a form of discrimination.

State officials, Troy said, cannot put language in their contracts saying “Christian groups need not apply.” He added, “Religious organizations…cannot be quarantined.”

Iowa officials also insist that they are paying only for the non-religious aspects of the program. Americans United counters that there are no non-religious aspects of InnerChange. In fact, Colson has bragged about the program’s all-consuming evangelical approach. One InnerChange document notes, “All programming – all day, every day – is Christ-centered.”

InnerChange, the group’s Web site proclaims, is “a revolutionary, Christ-centered, faith-based prison program supporting inmates through their spiritual and moral transformation.”

How did a program with such sectarian goals find its way into a state prison? A slick sales pitch from Prison Fellowship may account for part of the answer. Corrections officials are always looking for programs to reduce recidivism among inmates. Colson’s InnerChange has made startling claims of success, asserting that huge numbers of participants became law-abiding citizens after leaving prison.

In 2003, Colson released what he said was statistical validation for this claim. Prison Fellowship trumpeted a study that claimed to show that inmates who took part in InnerChange returned to prison at a much lower rate than those who did not.

The media reported the findings as factual, and Colson went to the White House to share the good news with his friends President George W. Bush and then Attorney General John Ashcroft. Bush, a faith-based enthusiast, asked Ashcroft to look for ways the InnerChange program could be expanded in federal prisons.

But it didn’t take long for Colson’s inflated claims to collapse. Mark Klei­man, a professor of public policy at the University of California-Los An­geles, ex­amined the study and found it to be statistically invalid. Prison Fellowship had excluded all the prisoners who did not finish the program, in essence kicking its failures out. When all of the participants were added back in, Kleiman found that InnerChange participants actually returned to prison at a slightly higher rate than a control group.

None of this has slowed down Inner­Change’s growth. The program receives tax support in Texas, Kansas and Min­nesota, and another program is in the works in Arkansas. (Florida runs two “faith-based” prisons that are not officially connected with InnerChange.)

Americans United’s Lynn stresses that AU does not oppose rehabilitative programs for prisoners. In fact, Lynn said he believes state support for Inner­Change runs counter to the goal of rehabilitation by offering a program so steeped in one religious perspective that many inmates do not feel comfortable taking part.

An inmate’s opportunity for rehabilitation, AU lawyers say, should not hinge on his or her willingness to adopt evangelical Christianity.

Americans United also does not oppose voluntary religious programs in correctional institutions. Religious groups have provided spiritual counseling, religious services and holy books to inmates for many years, using their own funds and materials. AU simply opposes requiring the taxpayer to subsidize evangelistic activity.

Lynn said the lawsuit will almost certainly have implications beyond the prison context. President Bush, when he was governor of Texas, was a big booster of the Colson program. Colson’s close relationship with Bush undoubtedly influenced Bush’s decision to promote faith-based solutions in many social service programs. A win in the Newton case should help put the brakes on that approach.

Religious Right groups know how much is at stake and have been following developments closely. In a 2003 column that ran shortly after the AU case was filed, Colson asserted, “What’s at stake here is not just a prison program, but how we deal with social problems in our country. Do we do it through grassroots organizations or big government? We know what works. Armies of compassion, the ordinary men and women who love God, are best able to help their neighbors and solve our problems in America.”

Some Colson allies have also been distributing generous amounts of propaganda.

TV preacher Pat Robertson’s “700 Club” ran an interview with Prison Fellowship President Mark Earley Nov. 8. Host Lee Webb asked Earley if participants had to be evangelical Christians, to which Earley replied, “No, not at all. That’s the whole point. We have atheists who’ve come into the program; we’ve had Wiccans and Druids, Muslims, Jews, Christians of all kind of denominational affiliations. The only thing they have to do to come into the program is desire to participate and agree not to be disruptive. We make it clear that it’s a Christ-centered program, it’s based on the teachings of Jesus and the Bible as a means to transform…. Of course many of [the inmates] are seeing their lives transformed….”

After the interview, Robertson went on a tirade, telling his viewing audience, “That Americans United for Separation of Church and State, they don’t care how many murders take place. They don’t care how many violent criminals come out on the streets. They don’t care how much money people have to spend to lock people up. Just don’t tell them about the Bible and don’t tell them about Jesus. That would be terrible. But these people, in my opinion, are enemies of the state, if I can quote the title of a famous play of a few centuries ago. They’re enemies of the state. And they’re enemies of good, decency and order….”

Americans United’s Lynn countered that this type of program, so heavily anchored in a specific religious ap­proach, highlights an often overlooked problem with the faith-based approach: It all too often forces people to choose between getting a needed benefit from their government and maintaining their religious freedom rights.

“It’s both unconstitutional and morally wrong for the government to pressure inmates to convert to evangelical Christianity as the price of obtaining rehabilitation services,” Lynn observed. “It is in the public interest for inmates to receive the best rehabilitation possible, so that they can make a contribution to society when they leave prison. But no American should be strong-armed by the government to adopt a particular religious viewpoint.”