Faith-based programs give facilities a helping hand.

Author:Bright, Laurie C.
Position:NIJ Update

Authors' note: Findings and conclusions reported in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Religious groups have long played a role in helping prisoners and their families, and our nation's prisons have a considerable range of religion-based activities. At a minimum, every prison has at least one prison chaplain available, (1) and many prisons are offering more than prayer services or religious study. Increasingly, these programs offer in-prison, prerelease and reentry services to prisoners and their families. Corrections-related faith-based programs, staffed by committed volunteers, offer the potential to reduce the cost of providing services.

Research is inconclusive about the effectiveness of the programs in terms of their impact on recidivism or ability to change behavior, but some programs are building impressive track records and are helping correctional facilities provide much-needed services. This article highlights five of them. (2)

Marion, Ohio

The Horizon Program is a 48-bed unit for male inmates at the Marion Correctional Institution, which began operations in 2000. The program, which draws volunteers from the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faith communities in nearby Columbus, helps inmates develop pro-social beliefs and skills. Horizon at Marion has established strong partnerships with the faith community and taps into a remarkably stable pool of volunteers who provide spiritual development and mentoring activities. Each year, approximately 60 volunteers provide services in the Horizon unit. Only the program coordinator and volunteer coordinator are paid positions. The Marion Correctional Facility provides funding, and private sources such as churches also contribute, according to Program Coordinator Jeff Hunsaker.

Enlisting members of the community who can model pro-social behavior and attitudes is important in creating a change of heart in offenders and restoring them to better lives, Hunsaker said. Horizon targets inmates who have at least two years to serve before their release. This requirement gives inmates time to put into practice what they learn and to reduce behavioral problems while in prison. The selected inmates live in interfaith "families" for 10 months and receive spiritual mentoring as well as services to help change anti-social beliefs and behaviors, reunite with their families, gain basic life skills, and aid in recovery from addiction. Inmates are selected for the program after interviews with administrators and staff to gauge their readiness and commitment to changing their behavior. Last year, Horizon graduates were given the chance to recommend a fellow inmate to participate in the program. Correctional staff and program officials believe that inmates recommended by Horizon graduates could be successful candidates because the graduates would have insight into an inmate's willingness to change.

As of June 2006, Horizon at Marion had served 230 inmates; 179 have graduated and almost half--86--have been released. Of the 86, 14 percent have returned to the state prison system. (3) According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics report about U.S. reentry trends, 41 percent of inmates discharged by state parole...

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