Finding Jesus in prison could become a bit more hellish if an ongoing challenge to a high-profile, controversial “faith-based” prison ministry program is successful in court, says the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “We expect this case to set an important precedent,” says Robert Boston of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State about an ongoing trial in Iowa. The organization is taking on the Iowa state prison system and its contract with Prison Fellowship Ministries, a program founded by former imprisoned Nixon presidential aide Chuck Colson, and its InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI). The prison-based program operates in Minnesota as well as in prisons in Iowa, Kansas, and Texas.
A University of Pennsylvania study said the progrm boasts an astounding 8 to 12 percent recidivism rate nationwide among program graduates tracked for at least two years after release from prison. The study has been called into question by researchers who found fault with its methodology. National recidivism rates for all offenders hover around 50 percent after three years of release. “The InnerChange program is essentially a government-funded conversion program,” argues the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Prison Fellowship is free to run evangelism programs on its own dime but has no business handing the bill to the taxpayer. This setup clearly violates the separation of church and state.” Program officials counter that state monies are used strictly for nonreligious activities or expenses, such as providing separate housing facilities and nonreligious services within the prison for offenders. In Minnesota corrections commissioner Joan Fabian says, “Frankly, I have been impressed with what I have seen. There have been few assaults or rule infractions among those in the program, and they seem genuine in discussing how their crimes had impacted their victims because of their relationship now with their faith or God.”