Thursday, 25 December 2003

Florida launches faith-based prison

The Associated Press reports that Jeb Bush, the Governor of Florida and brother of the President, quarterbacked the opening ceremony of a new social experiment: a faith-based prison. (Via Washington Post) The experiment is being hailed as the first such prison in the United States.

The "new" prison is really a rededicated old prison that has been in operation for some time. Now, however, it will cater to its prisoners' spiritual "needs" where the old system did not. The state claims that all 791 prisoners therein are living there voluntarily — either because they chose not to transfer out or because they applied to transfer in. AP reports a different story, however:

Many of the prisoners who did not transfer from Lawtey stayed simply because they did not want to move, and not because they wanted to become more involved in religion. But inmates who want to make use of the faith initiative say those who do not participate eventually will be released and replaced by others who will make the program stronger.

"They'll get weeded out," said Bryan Lemaster. "When that gets taken care of, I think it will be pretty good." Lemaster is a Catholic who is serving a three-year sentence on a gun violation. It is his second time in prison after serving time for burglary. He said he hopes to get closer to his religion.

The cynic in me wants to ask why this prison is the "first" of its kind in the country when the prison in Guantanamo Bay has been operating for two years. Oh yeah…the governor's brother declared that prison not to be on American soil and not subject to the jurisdiction of the U.S. judiciary. That prison is also mostly (entirely?) Muslim, and the President does not seem to consider it of the same stripe as a Christian prison.

Meanwhile, I will ask how long it will take for a court to declare the new experiment unconstitutional. Unless Florida plans to provide identical religious services to every person in every prison within the state, I do not see how it can escape the obvious problems under the establishment clause of the First Amendment and the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. Each prisoner quoted in the AP article practiced some flavor of Christianity. Does the State also provide spiritual counseling to Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Wiccans, atheists, secular humanists, agnostics, and Jedis? Does such counseling receive equal per-prisoner funding? How do the minister-to-prisoner ratios compare? Are their faiths' holy scriptures available in the prison library, alongside the Christian bible? Are the Jews provided with a Torah scroll? Do the Jedis get light sabers?

All the published interviews I can find thus far — with prison officials, politicians, prisoners, volunteer ministers, and their families — have been with Christians. Each one makes a point of saying that prisoners will be free to practice whatever faith they choose and that no one will proselytize. Unfortunately, their actions and attitudes belie this as dishonest.

For example, Paul Smith, pastor of Miracle Baptist Church in Stuart, Florida, said in an interview with "An inmate can be selected [to live in Lawtey prison] whether he has faith, whether he doesn't have faith, or whether he wants to come to faith." In other words, this volunteer was told something different than what Governor Bush told the press at the opening ceremony — that some prisoners are not there because they chose to practice a particular faith. When asked whether the prison would cater to Christians, Pastor Smith said, "absolutely not. A faith-based prison is for all faiths and all denominations." When asked about those other faiths and denominations, however, he named only Catholics and Muslims. Later, he revealed the depth of his bias:

It does not violate separation of church and state, one, because all of the inmates have volunteered to be there. If they were being forced or if they were given some type of reduced sentence, or early release to participate in the program, then I think it's a violation. The only thing that this program is a violation to is the devil and the fact he wants to have more souls go to hell.

As established by AP, not all prisoners are there voluntarily, and the problems are compounded by the program's reliance on volunteer ministers. The motivation of all the volunteers appears to be wholly religious. The rationale behind the reliance on volunteers is to prevent the State from paying ministers' salaries — on the theory that not spending money in such a manner will solve the establishment-clause problem. The Christian Science Monitor reports:
In the program, volunteers will act as personal mentors, offering support to each inmate both during their incarceration and as they settle back into the community after serving their sentences. Inmates will participate in all the usual day-to-day prison activities, but during evenings and at weekends will undergo extra classes examining issues such as anger management, good parenting, and the effect of crime on victims, run by representatives from a variety of faiths including Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.

As of today, 26 religions will be represented among Lawtey's population. Belief in a god is not a requirement of the program. But a commitment to self-improvement is. Of the 819 prisoners housed at Lawtey when the scheme was announced in early December, less than 100 have indicated that they do not wish to take part; they have been moved to facilities elsewhere in the state.

Floridians have more than 26 religions, and I would bet that their prisoners do, too. Until they solve that problem — and the problem of the "many" current Lawtey prisoners who want no part of this religious program — this experiment will remain unconstitutional.

Posted at 3:24:47 PM | Permalink
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Topics: Civil Liberties, Skeptical Inquiry
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