Sen. Brownback Goes to Prison

Fresh off of announcing the formation of his exploratory committee as he considers running for president, Sen. Sam Brownback spent a night at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in order highlight what the Right sees as the success of religious-based prison fellowship ministries at reducing violence and recidivism:


Sen. Sam Brownback took his budding presidential campaign to prison this weekend, spent a restless night among inmates and pressed his message that faith can work even to improve the lives of hardened criminals.

… His mission at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, rather, was to promote religious-based prison efforts to curtail violence and provide inmates with an alternative to crime once — or if — they got out.

Burl Cain, the prison’s warden since 1995, attributed a drop in violence at the prison to Angola’s commitment to ”moral rehabilitation” programs. The prison has six interfaith chapels, nightly prayer services, four part-time chaplains and a ”Bible college” that has trained dozens of inmates to be ministers.

Brownback, 50, said programs such as Angola’s can ”break the cycle” that sends two-thirds of inmates back to prison after they are released.

”We don’t want to build more prisons in the country,” he said. ”We don’t want to lock people up. We want people to be good, productive citizens.”

As luck would have it, at the same time as Brownback was engaged in this stunt, the New York Times was taking a look at these sorts of programs and noting that more than a dozen have been ruled unconstitutional since 2000:

Life was different in Unit E at the state prison outside Newton, Iowa.

The toilets and sinks — white porcelain ones, like at home — were in a separate bathroom with partitions for privacy. In many Iowa prisons, metal toilet-and-sink combinations squat beside the bunks, to be used without privacy, a few feet from cellmates.

The cells in Unit E had real wooden doors and doorknobs, with locks. More books and computers were available, and inmates were kept busy with classes, chores, music practice and discussions. There were occasional movies and events with live bands and real-world food, like pizza or sandwiches from Subway. Best of all, there were opportunities to see loved ones in an environment quieter and more intimate than the typical visiting rooms.

But the only way an inmate could qualify for this kinder mutation of prison life was to enter an intensely religious rehabilitation program and satisfy the evangelical Christians running it that he was making acceptable spiritual progress. The program — which grew from a project started in 1997 at a Texas prison with the support of George W. Bush, who was governor at the time — says on its Web site that it seeks “to ‘cure’ prisoners by identifying sin as the root of their problems” and showing inmates “how God can heal them permanently, if they turn from their sinful past.”

One Roman Catholic inmate, Michael A. Bauer, left the program after a year, mostly because he felt the program staff and volunteers were hostile toward his faith.

“My No. 1 reason for leaving the program was that I personally felt spiritually crushed,” he testified at a court hearing last year. “I just didn’t feel good about where I was and what was going on.”

For Robert W. Pratt, chief judge of the federal courts in the Southern District of Iowa, this all added up to an unconstitutional use of taxpayer money for religious indoctrination, as he ruled in June in a lawsuit challenging the arrangement.

The Iowa prison program is not unique. Since 2000, courts have cited more than a dozen programs for having unconstitutionally used taxpayer money to pay for religious activities or evangelism aimed at prisoners, recovering addicts, job seekers, teenagers and children.

In ruling on that case, Judge Pratt noted that the born-again Christian staff was the sole judge of an inmate’s spiritual transformation. If an inmate did not join in the religious activities that were part of his “treatment,” the staff could write up disciplinary reports, generating demerits the inmate’s parole board might see. Or they could expel the inmate.

And while the program was supposedly open to all, in practice its content was “a substantial disincentive” for inmates of other faiths to join, the judge noted. Although the ministry itself does not condone hostility toward Catholics, Roman Catholic inmates heard their faith criticized by staff members and volunteers from local evangelical churches, the judge found. And Jews and Muslims in the program would have been required to participate in Christian worship services even if that deeply offended their own religious beliefs.