"InnerChange": conversion as the price of freedom and comfort - a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of faith-based prison units.

AuthorLuchenitser, Alex J.

In the State of Iowa's prison system, enrolling in a program called "The InnerChange Freedom Initiative" could bring an inmate many benefits. Inmates, for example, drew closer to parole because treatment credits they needed for release were more easily available through the program. (1) Entering the program also allowed inmates to move into what many Iowa prisoners considered the most desirable living unit in the state's most desirable prison. (2) And the program's inmates received greater contact with their family members, guarantees of jobs in the prison, increased access to computers and training on how to use them, and various other perks. (3)

There was only one catch: InnerChange was an intensive, day-and-night religious program that indoctrinated inmates into one particular version of Christianity. (4) Inmates who did not subscribe to the program's religious teachings faced discrimination and pressure to convert. (5) Roman Catholic inmates, for example, were told that many of their beliefs were wrong. (6) Indeed, one Catholic inmate reported that a program counselor prayed in front of the inmate that Jesus lead the inmate away from Catholicism so that he would not burn in Hell. (7) Likewise, InnerChange's counselors told a Native American inmate that his religion's sweat lodge rituals were a form of witchcraft and sorcery, and they repeatedly asked him whether he had been saved, believed in Jesus, and had become a Christian. (8)

The discriminatory and proselytizing nature of InnerChange was just one of the many aspects of the program that rendered it unconstitutional as a matter of law and abhorrent as a matter of policy. Inmates were drawn into the program by its material benefits and coerced to stay by penalties associated with withdrawal. (9) State correctional officials granted program staff power over the daily lives of prison inmates and lent the weight of governmental authority to enforcement of the program's religious mandates. (10) And public resources were used to support the program's efforts to indoctrinate and convert. (11)

The InnerChange program in Iowa was not an isolated experiment. Over the last decade, faith-based prison units have spread across the country, and one state has even established entire faith-based prisons. (12) Of course, not all faith-based units and prisons share all the flaws of the InnerChange program. But many of the program's defects--most commonly, the domination of instruction by one sect and the linkage of material benefits with participation have been reported to be present in many of the other faith-based units and prisons around the country. (13)

And although proponents of faith-based prison programs contend that the programs reduce recidivism, there is no scientific evidence supporting such a claim. (14) In any event, even if it were shown that religious instruction prevents criminal behavior from reoccurring, this would not justify the constitutional violations associated with faith-based prison programs. (15)

To avoid the constitutional issues and policy concerns raised by many faith-based prison programs, prison officials and religious organizations should move away from the recently popularized in-prison-faith-immersion model. Religious practice and study can certainly do a great deal of good for those who desire it. Within prison, however, religious programs should not be linked to a prisoner's living arrangements or to other material benefits and should be offered in a manner that minimizes state involvement and the risk of coercion. More intensive religious programs are best saved for presentation to interested criminal offenders after they are released from prison, when the dangers of excessive entwinement between government and religion are lower, and there is less of a threat that religious training will be used for material gain by those who lack genuine desire to deepen their faith. Through this path, people of faith can do the most good for those who share or are open to their faith, while the rights of those of other faiths and of the secular can be respected and protected.


    Americans United for Separation of Church & State v. Prison Fellowship Ministries--a lawsuit filed in federal district court by Iowa taxpayers and inmates challenging Iowa's sponsorship of the InnerChange program--illuminated the program's many flaws. (16) After a three-week trial, the district court found--based on voluminous evidence--that the InnerChange program sought to convert inmates to its doctrines, discriminated against those who did not share in its dogmas, and provided vital material benefits to those who were willing to submit to its creed. (17) The district court accordingly concluded that Iowa's support of the program violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. (18) The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed this ruling in December 2007. (19) No party asked the Supreme Court to review the case, and Iowa terminated the program's operations in March 2008. (20)

    The Establishment Clause prohibits government bodies from making any "law respecting an establishment of religion." (21) The U.S. Supreme Court has held that the Establishment Clause bars the government from engaging in conduct that has the purpose or effect of advancing religion. (22) Governmental conduct can have the unconstitutional effect of advancing religion in a number of ways: The government must not sponsor or finance religious indoctrination, or otherwise provide cash or in-kind aid to religious organizations that use the aid to support religious activity. (23) The state cannot discriminate among persons based on religion. (24) The government must not coerce individuals to take part in religious activity (25) or otherwise provide individuals "any incentive to modify their religious beliefs or practices" or "to undertake religious indoctrination." (26) And the state is prohibited both from becoming excessively entangled in the affairs of religious institutions (27) and from delegating governmental power to such institutions. (28)

    Iowa's relationship with InnerChange ran afoul of all of these prohibitions, as we will now see in detail.

    1. InnerChange Indoctrinated Inmates in the Teachings of a Particular Religious Sect and Sought to Convert Them

      The InnerChange program was developed and operated by Prison Fellowship Ministries. (29) Prison Fellowship Ministries is the largest prison ministry in the world. (30) The organization describes itself as "Compelled to Evangelize." (31) It states that its goal is to "establish the Gospel of Jesus Christ" to inmates, that it "is in the business of saving souls for Christ," and that it used InnerChange to "realize souls won for the Kingdom of God." (32)

      InnerChange described itself as a "24-hour-a-day, Christ-centered, biblically based, program that promotes personal transformation of prisoners through the power of the Gospel." (33) Inmates in the program were housed in a separate unit of an Iowa prison--the Newton Correctional Facility. (34) Religious material was on display throughout InnerChange's living and programming areas, and the atmosphere was overtly religious. (35) The in-prison portion of the program lasted eighteen months, and a post-release phase lasted at least six months. (36)

      During the in-prison phase, every weekday morning InnerChange inmates were required to attend devotions where they prayed and read Christian Scriptures. (37) Every weekday afternoon the inmates had to go to community meetings where they prayed, made prayer requests, sang religious songs, and read Scripture. (38) On Friday nights the inmates were required to attend revivals, which were essentially worship services featuring Christian singing and sermons. (39) Every Sunday morning the inmates had to participate in church services led by InnerChange staff. (40) The inmates spent approximately four hours each weekday in InnerChange's classes. (41)

      All InnerChange classes and program components were used to indoctrinate inmates in and convert them to InnerChange's Christian beliefs, for that was the program's central goal. (42) According to an InnerChange handbook for inmates, "[t]ransformation" was the "[m]ajor purpose of the program" and was "brought about by depending on Christ and living according to the Bible." (43) "True transformation begins with salvation, also called conversion," and "[c]onversion is when you turn away from what is negative and turn to Christ." (44) InnerChange's operations manual stated, "It is the earnest desire of IFI [InnerChange] that residents convert to Christ and follow His ways that lead to transformation." (45)

      InnerChange's classes were the fulcrum of the program's efforts to convert. Some of InnerChange's classes were overwhelmingly devotional in nature--entirely religious and inherently intended to indoctrinate. (46) And while other InnerChange classes encompassed secular subjects such as substance abuse and finances, those classes were also used to indoctrinate. (47) InnerChange instructors relied on biblical Scripture to support all of their teachings on secular topics. (48) Program staff taught that all the answers to life's difficulties are found in the Bible and through conversion to Christ. (49) InnerChange's curricular materials were filled with statements designed to convert inmates to the program's particular version of Christianity. (50) Inmates in the program had to read and complete books and workbooks with titles such as "Experiencing God: Knowing and Doing the Will of God," "Step by Step Through the New Testament," "Step by Step Through the Old Testament," "The Man God Uses," "In God's Presence," "Walking With God: Friendship With God," "Experiencing God Together," and "Hearing God's Voice." (51)

      InnerChange forced all of its inmates to memorize Bible verses and gave the inmates homework assignments and graded...

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