Nation's first faith-based prisons seek to reduce recidivism

Posted: Friday, May 14, 2004

LAWTEY, Fla. (AP) For 22 years, Curtis Cason has been unable to shake the cocaine demons he blames for putting him behind bars six times.

But now, the 47-year-old Cason believes his participation in the nation's first faith-based prison at Lawtey Correctional Institution will give him the tools to remain clean and free when he's released in about three years.

''Since I got here, there have been great changes,'' said Cason, who is in Lawtey for yet another drug conviction. He works in the prison's chapel library and would like to work with at-risk children after he's released. ''My commitment to Christ is a lot stronger.''

From the outside, Lawtey looks much like any other prison. Razor wire atop tall fences sparkles in the sunshine. But it differs in its programs. Along with regular prayer sessions, the facility offers religious studies, choir practice, religious counseling and other spiritual activities seven days a week.

Lawtey, about 30 miles southwest of Jacksonville, was transformed in December from a regular prison to one welcoming inmates who seek a religious life, regardless of faith. Participation among the 750 inmates is voluntary they are free to go back to regular prison life elsewhere.

Another faith-based prison for women opened in mid-April near Tampa at Hillsborough Correctional Institution. It will eventually house more than 300 women. There's also been a faith-based dormitory for several years at Tomoka Correctional Institution, a men's prison near Daytona Beach.


Steve McCoy, Sr., Pastor at Beaches Chapel Church in Jacksonville, Fla. is seen in this Thursday, April 8, 2004 file photo conducting an anger management class in the chapel of Lawtey Correctional Institution in Lawtey, Fla.

AP Photo/Oscar Sosa

Criticized by civil liberties groups as mixing church and state, the faith-based institutions are a pet project of Gov. Jeb Bush and Corrections Secretary James Crosby, who hope they'll reduce recidivism.

In fiscal 2002, the state spent more than $1.3 billion to house more than 73,000 inmates. About 44 percent of the inmates admitted that year had already done a previous stint in a Florida prison.

The Lawtey prison, down a tree-lined road, is home to inmates from 32 different denominations, including Christians, Jews and Muslims. About half of the inmates identify themselves as Baptists, although there are 132 Roman Catholics, 11 professing American Indian religions and even three Wiccans.

Some of the programs include anger management, managing finances, overcoming addiction and resume preparation. Another key feature of the prison is a mentoring system that pairs inmates with people on the outside who can help them get over difficult times once on the outside.

To date, only 16 inmates have decided Lawtey wasn't for them and transferred.

There's no requirement that inmates believe in God, but they must have a belief they can turn their lives around. To be eligible, inmates must be nearing release within about three years, have clean prison records and request to come to Lawtey.

Inmates and corrections officers alike agree that the atmosphere at Lawtey is safer for both sides. Cason said in other prisons, inmates constantly steal from other prisoners, but he hasn't had that happen at Lawtey. He also says an inmate at Lawtey is treated more like a human being than in other institutions.

William Wright, chief chaplain at Lawtey, said the foundations of the faith-based programs are character development.

''These guys know they are going to get out,'' said Wright, of the Christian Family Chapel in south Jacksonville. ''We don't want them coming back. If they do, they can't be the husbands, fathers and brothers they need to be.''

Corrections officials from several states have looked at Florida's program, including a Georgia delegation that recently toured Lawtey.

But not everyone thinks the program is a good idea, believing it crosses the line separating church and state.

''Essentially, Florida now has set up two faith-based prisons, but does not have the constitutional right to set up either one of them,'' said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State in Washington, D.C.

Other prisons and programs also have used religious thinking to try to turn inmates away from crime. The Prison Fellowship Ministries runs its Christ-centered InnerChange Freedom Initiative in prisons in Minnesota, Kansas, Iowa and Texas.

Two lawsuits have been filed by Americans United against InnerChange in Iowa, alleging it indoctrinates inmates into Christianity, discriminates in employment and gives prisoners special rights if they participate in the program, Lynn said.

President Bush, however, wants to find ways to expand faith-based programs such as InnerChange Freedom Initiative in federal prisons, said Jim Towey, head of the White House office of faith-based initiatives. InnerChange begins with in-prison Bible education, followed by six to 12 months after release in which an inmate must hold a job and be an active church member. The ex-offender is given help in assimilating into his family, community and workplace with the help of his Christian mentor, the InnerChange staff and their church family.

Wright, Lawtey's prison chaplain, is optimistic about Florida's program and quotes black activist Malcolm X to describe the effort: ''To have been a criminal is not a disgrace but, to remain one, that's the disgrace.''

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