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June 7, 2004 - Time Magazine (US)

Society: When God Is The Warden

The Nation's First Faith-Based Prison Mixes Religion And Rehab - And Stirs Up Controversy

By Tim Padgett/Lawtey

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Monday, Rayfield Newton was in the fast lane of recidivism. In June 2001 he left a Florida state prison after serving a year and a half for crack-cocaine possession. But by last summer he was back, sentenced to more than three years for selling the stuff and assaulting a police officer. Then late last year, sitting in his cell at a penitentiary in Florida's Panhandle, Newton heard that the Lawtey Correctional Institution, south of Jacksonville, had just been converted into the nation's first "faith based" prison. Fearing that his crimes were alienating his 12-year-old daughter, Newton decided to try Lawtey's mix of religion and rehab. "Drugs before my daughter, that was my life's priorities," says Newton, 38. "I had to get myself right and get closer to God."

God at least feels closer at Lawtey, a medium-and minimum-security facility that houses nearly 800 inmates. Under the prison's spiritual regimen, the Bible, the Koran and the Torah are read alongside manuals on substance abuse, anger management and job training. Volunteer clergy from churches, mosques and other houses of God seem almost as ubiquitous as guards, and prayer is built into the day. Sitting in a chapel pew as a gospel ensemble belts out Lord, I Love to Sing Your Praises, Newton, who transferred to the facility in March, shares what he calls "blessed" news. "I've been praying for my first letter from my daughter, and it came last night," he says. "She knows I'm not going to come back here again once I get out this time."

The U.S. has the world's largest per capita prison population--2 million - and a repeat-offender rate of more than 50%. But there is growing evidence that inmates who participate in religious programs while incarcerated are less likely to return once they get out. A 2003 Texas study, done by then University of Pennsylvania sociology professor Byron Johnson in conjunction with the Manhattan Institute, found that only 8% of inmates involved in faith-based activities returned within two years after release, compared with 20% for inmates of similar backgrounds and offenses who had no religious routine. In another study, to be published in this month's issue of the journal Justice Quarterly, Johnson, now at Baylor University, reports that those who merely attended regular Bible-study classes were still half as likely to be rejailed within three years after release.

Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who, like his brother President George W. Bush, has made faith-based initiatives a staple of his conservative social policy, is such a big fan of the Lawtey program that he has already duplicated it at a new women's facility at Hillsborough Correctional Institution, near Tampa. But the approach has its detractors. Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (A.C.L.U.) have warned that it may violate church-state separation. Governor Bush responds that Lawtey and Hillsborough use only private funding for their religious programs - and says they offer equitable access to 31 faiths, including Baptist, Jewish, Native American and Rastafarian.

Corrections officials also insist that inmates have to raise their hand to be at Lawtey and that more than 100 prisoners at the facility who wanted out of the experiment were moved to other institutions in December. Those places were quickly filled by inmates from other facilities who, like Newton, say they're looking for a more meaningful way to spend their prison time than lifting weights. The religious alternative seems to be working. Assistant warden John Hancock says Lawtey's confinement wing for inmates with discipline problems usually held close to its capacity of 28 prisoners, but now rarely has more than six at a time. "We're not forcing this change on anybody," Hancock says in response to criticism that Lawtey is a thinly veiled tool of Christian proselytism. "They choose it."

During a tightly controlled press tour of Lawtey last week, inmates told TIME that it's easier to contemplate the straight and narrow when your cellblock feels like an episode of Touched by an Angel instead of Oz. "The difference between this and my last prison, where I was mixed in with violent criminals, is heaven and hell," says Dana Chaison, 51, a convicted drug offender and Roman Catholic. "It's kind of hard to focus on your rehab when you're always watching your back." Bossard Shawn, 32, says he saw his Muslim chaplain so infrequently at his former prison that he felt adrift. Now, under the regular tutelage of local imam Zaid Malik, "I have far more knowledge of Islam and myself," says Shawn. "It's going to make a great amount of difference when I leave here in six months." Notes Lawtey senior chaplain William Wright: "You can teach a man new skills in prison, but you also have to work on his heart. I think this more holistic approach is the future."

But Howard Simon, the A.C.L.U.'S Florida executive director, argues that it is important to draw a line between prisons that make chaplains available to inmates and prisons that make faith their core corrections criterion. "We're glad the Governor wants to improve Florida's brutal prison conditions," says Simon, "but not under the condition that religious indoctrination has to be involved." A.C.L.U. lawyers are studying the extent of direct or even indirect government funding for Lawtey's religion-based activities before deciding whether to file suit against the program. Simon and other critics also complain that Bush unveiled the faith-based-prison concept last year at the same time the state was slashing more than $20 million from secular prison-rehabilitation programs.

Still, religion-based rehab programs seem to inspire a loyal following. After Ken Cooper, 66, was paroled in 1987 from a life sentence for a string of armed bank robberies, he "received a new life sentence" to minister to inmates, he says, and is now a Christian volunteer at Lawtey. "For the criminal type," says Cooper, "getting him to relate to an authority higher than himself is often the only way. "

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