February 2004 Church & State | People & Events

Attorneys with Americans United have filed a freedom-of-information request with the Florida Department of Corrections to learn more about the state's new "faith-based" prison.

At the behest of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Lawtey Correctional Institute has been converted into the nation's first "faith-based" prison. Bush and several clergy members officially inaugurated the new approach during a Dec. 24 dedication ceremony that featured a Roman Catholic mass and speeches.

Americans United says the "faith-based" approach to corrections raises constitutional concerns.

"This program is very troubling," said Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. "We need to get all of the facts to see whether this prison is being run in accordance with the U.S. and Florida constitutions."

While lauding the facility as "faith-based," officials with the Florida Department of Corrections insist that no one will be required to take part in religious activities, no state funds will be spent on religion and no proselytism will be permitted.

Some religious leaders have even asserted that the program can work for non-religious inmates. Bishop Victor Galeone, who said the mass before the dedication, told the Florida Times-Union, "A faith-based approach does not require a belief in God. All it requires is a dedication to self-improvement. It's about reshaping their outlook on life."

Dedicating the prison on Christmas Eve, Bush told 800 inmates that religion can lead them out of lives of crime.

"I can't think of a better place to reflect on the awesome love of our Lord Jesus than to be here at Lawtey Correctional," Bush said. "I want to thank the inmates for making this choice.... This faith-based facility and the programs being offered will make a tremendous difference and change the lives of many individuals by creating a pathway out of the criminal justice system."

Despite Bush's remarks, corrections officials insist the prison is not Christian in character and say 23 religions are currently represented, with religious programs being offered by more than 500 volunteers.

But not every inmate in the facility is eager to take part. Prior to the prison's conversion, inmates were given the option of being transferred to other institutions. Some chose to stay even though they have no interest in the religious component because they are familiar with the institution or have family in the area.

Bush seems determined to make the facility a success. Only inmates with clean discipline records were allowed to transfer in, and any who get into trouble at Lawtey will be shipped to other institutions.

Department of Corrections Secretary James Crosby Jr. said inmates in Lawtey should find the atmosphere unlike other correctional facilities.

"We've developed a cocoon, a place where they can practice their faith and not have the severe negative pressures and interactions that naturally take place in some of our institutions," he said.

Lynn said state officials have sometimes made conflicting claims about the role religion will play in the facility. He said Americans United filed the freedom-of-information request to get to the bottom of the matter.

"We need to find out exactly what is going on at Lawtey," said Lynn.

In a Jan. 9 letter to the Florida Department of Corrections Office of General Counsel, AU attorneys requested copies of numerous documents relating to the prison, including copies of contracts between the state and religious groups; any documents released to inmates describing the facility; correspondence to department employees that concerns the prison and any documents relating to the source of funding of the religious aspects of the prison's programs.