Sunday, October 23, 2005

Faith Based Prisons

It is ironic that a group of people who want to have a position rehabilitating prisoners do not have the moral integrity to produce an honest report on their progress.

In earlier essays I have defended a rule-of-thumb regarding freedom of religion.

That principle states, "I may not prohibit you from building a church; at the same time, you may not force me to pay force me to attend."

I also argue that this is a reasonable interpretation of the moral principle behind the First Amendment to the US Constitution -- the part that says, "Congress shall pass no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

"No law respecting the establishment of religion" makes sense as a restriction on the Government that no American taxpayer will be forced to pay for the construction of a church or for the activities of a church that he does not belong to. Nor should any citizen be punished for deciding not to attend such a church. Presbyterians will not be forced to build a Baptist church. The salary for a Catholic priest will not be taken out of an Anglican church member's paycheck. The Jewish citizen will not be required to cover the expenses of Christian missionaries going about the world preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ.

"No law prohibiting the free exercise of religion" means that the government will not pass laws saying that a citizen cannot fund a church of his choice. If the Baptists want to build a church, and collect the money for it by private donations, then they shall not be prohibited from building that church. If the Catholics raise enough private money to hire a priest, then they may hire a priest. If a group of Christians raise enough money to hire missionaries to go into some part of the world and preach to the inhabitants, then no law may prohibit them from going there and preaching to the inhabitants.

In short, religious institutions may do what they wish, but the money they use to pay for it must come from private sources.


Today October 24th, a trial begins in Iowa where Americans United for Separation of Church and State has filed suit against the InnerChange Prison Systems for violating the Constitutional provision against the establishment of a religion. According to Americans United, the government is forcing taxpayers to fund an evangelical Christian church, pay for the salaries of its ministers, and even paying citizens to attend, while imposing penalties those who do not attend (or who the program will not accept).

Now, for my standard disclaimer: I am here to discuss right and wrong, not legal and illegal. Not everything permitted by the Constitution (e.g., slavery before 1865) is moral. I am concerned with what the law should say, and I will leave it up to lawyers and judges to fight over what the law says in fact.

The government sponsorship of InnerChange violates a moral rule captured in the statement I used at the start of this post.

The InnerChange program takes money from Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, Wiccan, and other citizens and uses them to construct a missionary church in the prison system, to pay for the staff of that church, and then sets out a program for providing those who join the church with benefits that those who are kept outside the church are not entitled to. It is entirely inconsistent with the doctrine of not forcing people to support a religion they do not belong to. It is entirely consistent with a doctrine that requires each church to depend on the voluntary contributions of their followers rather than coerced contributions mandated by the government.

The Effectiveness Argument

InnerChange argues that it should be permitted to continue to function as a government-funded ministry because of its effectiveness. There are two arguments to be raised against this.

Cooking the Numbers

The first is that its alleged effectiveness is the effect of cooking the numbers to get a desired result. Using the same principles, I can design an academic program that will be guaranteed to produce the same type of success with respect to academic excellence that this ministry claims for its prison program with respect to recidivism.

The program works like this. Students may freely decide to apply to the program. Those who get in will be given extra benefits. This will include the use of a video-game room that no other student can use, a wider selection of classes, and a cash signing bonus. There will also be different standards of punishment. If the school has a policy of 1 hour detention for disrupting a class, students in my program will get 15 minutes of detention.

Of all of the applicants, my staff gets to decide which ones to let into the program and which to keep out. (Note: Of course, we are going to select those students with the best academic record and keep those with a poor academic record out of the program). Furthermore, at any time, we reserve the right to expel any student that does not meet our standards. (Note: This means expelling any student that threatens to lower our average scores on any standardized academic test).

Under this program, I guarantee that my students will have higher academic scores than you will get from those students who are not a part of my program. I will guarantee those results with my life.

On these same standards, InnerChange is able to guarantee that its participants will have a lower recidivism rate than will be found among those who are not a part of the program. They will use this to argue that their program should continue to be funded.

I could set up such a program. I could use the same type of analysis that InnerChange uses to prove my product a success. I may also set it up as a prejudicial and discriminatory program in the sense that only those who disavow any belief in God are permitted to be teachers, and students who disavow any belief in God get special treatment, and still be a success.

The most significant point to make is that this method of reporting, this “cooking the numbers” is fraudulent. It is immoral. It is wrong. A person of good moral character would want to provide prisoners with options that are actually effective – that sound science (as opposed to intellectual fraud) finds to be effective. He would find the discover of somebody selling “snake oil” rehabilitation to be morally repulsive and abhorant.


The other argument against form of reasoning is to ask whether 'effectiveness' in this regard provides a good reason to build a government-funded church.

Let us assume that statistics show that Jews tend to commit fewer murders per capita than Catholics. Also, let us assume that they are also less likely to molest children, and contribute a higher proportion of their income to charity.

If we accept the InnerChange line of reasoning, this means that we should set up government-funded synagogues and pay people to go to them as a way of fighting crime and promoting charity. By InnerChange logic, this is not to be thought of as an example of attempting to establish a national religion.

Yet, clearly, that argument is absurd. Nothing would be more obvious than government programs that reward people for joining a government approved religion and punish those who do not violates the principle of government neutrality on religion. The person who denies this is speaking as much nonsense as the politician who says, “Sure, I lied under oath to the Grand Jury, but I did not commit perjury.”

If the plan is truly effective, then it should be able to generate private contributions that would allow them to continue their good work. Success does not give any religion the right to government funding.

We keep the religious peace in this country (unlike many other countries around the world) by a mutual agreement among different religious factions to use only voluntary methods to promote religion, and not to allow religions to start fighting for control of the state. There are legitimate reasons for concern when different religions violate that peace treaty and start fighting for control of the government.


The doctrine that I presented at the start of this essay states that InnerChange has a right to establish an outreach program within the prison system with whatever money it raises from the voluntary contributions of its own members. Prohibiting the church from giving its message to the prisoners -- particularly, prohibiting it from doing so based on the religious content of its message, would violate the moral principle I asserted at the start of this post.

Correspondingly, InnerChange has no right to force people who are not members to contribute. Nor does it have a right to negotiate "special rights" for its members -- making them super-citizens with powers and liberties not available to other citizens. These actions are just as much a violation of the same moral principles.

Some people actually care about moral principles.

1 comment:

Aaron Kinney said...

Excellent post. And rather ironic considering that religious people make up a VERY disproportionately large percentage of the prison population.