Friday, March 02, 2007

St Louis Post Dispatch: Faith behind bars

St Louis Post Dispatch: Faith behind bars
"RICHMOND, Texas — The circle of 12 men joined hands and closed their eyes. Latino, black, white, some baby-faced, some marked with blurry neck tattoos — all bowed their heads in prayer.

They had gathered Tuesday at the town's minimum-security prison for Leon Johnson, who was finishing a 10-year stint. It was the 55-year-old's third time in prison, this one for a trio of drug charges.

Johnson's fellow inmate, Jeff Smith, began. "God, guide him as he leaves here. We pray he will be mindful that you're just a prayer away, and that he seeks your strength when he needs to. We thank you for giving us all a second chance."

Second chances are the specialty of the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, a prisoner re-entry program where Johnson spent the last two years. The controversial program, based on fundamentalist evangelical Christianity, aims to reduce the rate at which freed inmates wind up back in prison. The program gives prisoners practical life-skills — how to write a résumé, what to wear to an interview, how to pass a driving test — and a Christian-values-based foundation upon which they can rebuild their lives.

On Thursday, Missouri launched InnerChange at the men's Algoa Correctional Center in Jefferson City, becoming the sixth state to adopt the program. This summer, it will begin the initiative at the Women's Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Vandalia. ..."

It's good to see something like this come to Missouri. The article goes on to point out that the Missouri program differs in one significant way from other programs in other states that are under legal attack -- InnerChange does not receive state funding. In addition, the sidebar to this article lists ten religions, eight of which are not Christian, which are fully accommodated in Missouri prisons, as well as 8 other "solitary practice" religions (including Wicca and Satanism) which are accommodated in a limited way.

As far as prison, rehabilitation, and the eventual release of most prisoners, we have a lot of experience and data to tell us what DOESN'T work. As long as such programs do not coerce prisoners to participate and as long as state or federal funding is not an issue, I really can't see that any harm is done. The "establishment clause" is not to be interpreted as "freedom FROM religion". Rather it means that the state shall not foster a state religion. Beyond that the purpose of the First Amendment is to preserve the right of citizens to practice their religion, or no religion, without interference by the State, along with other rights such as peaceable assembly, freedom of the speech and the press, and the right to petition the government:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

We know what doesn't work; why not provide a little hope to those who have little hope left?

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