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Florida prisons turning to faith to help inmates escape their troubled pasts

Posted: Friday, August 24, 2001

RIVERVIEW, Fla. (AP) -- Stubborn and violent, Cesar Cruz lived the thug life until it landed him behind bars at 17 for threatening people with a gun.

Now 17 months before he's due to be released, Cruz is hoping a new faith found in a kind of Bible camp inside prison walls will keep him from the life he's known.

''This is not a game to me,'' said Cruz, 20. ''A lot of people get released and they forget. It's imbedded in me.''

Cruz is one of 32 young inmates at Hillsborough Correctional Institution who are part of a statewide, $4.5 million effort to provide specialized services and housing to religious inmates and hire additional chaplains and counselors at seven prisons.

Florida Department of Corrections officials have created ''faith-based'' dormitories at those prisons. When the program is complete, 400 religious inmates will live separately from other prisoners and spend their days immersed in religious services and study, specialized counseling and a mandatory daily devotional period.

Florida prison officials gave the first look inside the program Thursday. Hillsborough opened its faith-based dormitory in November, following the lead of Tomoka Correctional, a Daytona Beach-area prison that created a separate dorm for religious inmates in 1999.

Five other Florida prisons are scheduled to open their faith-based dormitories by May.

Programs and worship schedules are adapted to Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and other faiths. Some services are conducted in Spanish.

Corrections officials are banking on the theory that inmates who get time for intense soul searching might be able to come to terms with their troubled lives and change.

The program comes with the blessing of Gov. Jeb Bush. A similar effort was introduced in Texas in 1997 when his brother, President George W. Bush, was governor.

''You can lock them up and you can correct them,'' Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Michael Moore said. ''One of the governor's priorities is prevention and treatment.''

Similar faith-based programs are being planned for five federal prisons as part of the president's initiative. A state prison in Iowa also has been operating a faith dormitory since 1999.

Florida's Hillsborough Correctional houses only teen-agers being punished as adults. Prison chaplain Lorenzo Thomas, a former police officer, said he became interested in the concept of a faith-based dormitory when an inmate complained it was hard to keep on the straight and narrow amid all the cussing, thieving and smoking in prison dormitories.

Among those working with the inmates are volunteers from local churches, including counselors who will come to the prison at all hours if an inmate needs help. Inmates in the faith dorms also undergo drug and alcohol counseling and learn about resumes and work skills.

Equally important, the inmates said, is that they have created a family for themselves in the program. For many, it's the only families they've ever known.

''We love each other here. I feel like everyone is my brother,'' said Angel Ramirez, a 20-year-old from Orlando who is serving five years for burglary and dealing in stolen property.

The inmates in the religious program are subject to the same rules as other inmates and those who break them must argue their case to their dorm mates before being allowed back into the program.

Thomas bans them from using the vernacular of prison -- they cannot refer to themselves as defendants. He does not want them to come here to learn how to be lifelong prisoners.

''I teach these kids that when they have the Lord in their heart, wherever they are, whatever their circumstances, they will be happy,'' Thomas said.

It is too soon for prison officials to know if the program is succeeding.

Moore said studies have shown that two-thirds of the inmates who don't have structured counseling, especially drug treatment, will commit new crimes after they are released.

When inmates go through a structure program, receive substance abuse treatment and have follow-up services after they are released, recidivism rates are reduced to one in four, prison officials said.

''We'll use what works,'' said Deputy Corrections Secretary Richard Dugger. ''Just think of the cost to society for every one that comes back in.''



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