The Justice Department plans to set aside cellblocks at up to half a dozen federal prisons for an ambitious pilot program to prepare inmates for release, reports the Washington Post. The plan has produced an outcry by saying that that a private group should counsel the prisoners according to a single faith. The plans do not specify what that faith must be, but they appear to rule out secular counseling or programs that offer inmates guidance in a variety of faiths. The advocacy group Americans United for Separation of Church and State charged in a letter to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales that the Bureau of Prisons tailored its bidding requirements to fit one program: an immersion in evangelical Christianity offered by Charles Colson’s Prison Fellowship Ministries.
Outlining 10 ways in which the prison bureau request for proposals from private contractors coincides with Prison Fellowship’s “InnerChange” program, Americans United contended that the plan is unconstitutional and urged Gonzales to withdraw it. Independent experts on constitutional law questioned the plan’s legality. “There are all sorts of gray areas in the interpretation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. This doesn’t seem to be in the gray area,” said Duke University law professor Erwin Chemerinsky. “This seems to favor religion over non-religion, and some religions over other religions. By wanting to fund only one religion, I think it runs afoul of what even the most conservative justices would be willing to tolerate.” Department of Justice spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said the plan is noncoercive and constitutional because participation will be voluntary and the inmates who choose to take part will receive no reduction in their sentence and “no better facilities, same food, same privileges and disciplinary rules.” ABureau of Prisons spokeswoman said $3 million has been appropriated for the program. She said it is possible that he bureau could approve several proposals and set up, say, a Roman Catholic program at one prison, a Jewish program at another and an evangelical Protestant program at a third.