There are constitutionally sound ways to ensure that prisoners have the ability to nurture their religious sides. But turning over an entire wing of a state correctional facility to a religious group bent on converting prisoners is never the way to go.
It took a lawsuit and years of costly litigation, but state officials in Iowa have finally severed close ties with the InnerChange program, an around-the-clock fundamentalist Christian ministry run by Prison Fellowship Ministries.
The Des Moines Register reported yesterday that Iowa will terminate use of the InnerChange program in mid-March. According to the newspaper, Prison Fellowship, founded by Watergate ex-felon Charles Colson, will cease receiving special accommodations from state corrections officials.
"There will be no funds allocated or applied in any way," said spokesman Fred Scaletta.
Stretching back to 1999, Iowa has funneled millions of dollars into the InnerChange program, which was given great leeway in setting up shop in a wing of Iowa's Newton prison. Americans United, representing inmates, their family members and taxpayers, sued the Iowa Department of Corrections over its support of InnerChange. A U.S. District Judge and subsequently the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Americans United, finding that that InnerChange immersed inmates in religiosity and should not be funded with public dollars.
During the course of the litigation, Americans United revealed 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 greater contact with family members.
Moreover, InnerChange personnel and material too 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 Bible and warned that inmates would suffer eternal damnation unless they became evangelical Christians.
A former Newton inmate, who participated in the InnerChange program, complained to the newspaper about Iowa's decision to sever ties with the program. Mario Hayslett, now director of an inmate reentry program, claimed that Iowa's decision to shut down InnerChange would undermine its commitment to rehabilitate prisoners.
But that's nonsense. The InnerChange program was only open to those inmates willing to subject themselves to an intense program aimed at converting them to a strain of Christianity in order to receive rehabilitation services.
Iowa corrections officials owe a duty to all their inmates, not just those willing to participate in a Christian ministry program. And Iowa officials should uphold constitutional principles and not funnel taxpayer funds to religion.