TAMPA, Fla - Governor Jeb Bush announced plans to open the first “faith-based” prison in the US during a conference held White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives at the Tampa Convention Center, Dec. 5.
"Many of the reasons why people are in prison is because of the hollowness of the heart," Bush said. "I believe that when people commit violent acts that it is appropriate for society to enforce the laws and that people should be punished for their actions. But I also believe that lives can be changed."
The new religious programme, slated for Lawtey Correctional Institution - the medium security 791-inmate prison in rural north Florida, will be based on the faith-based dormitories initiative that was adopted by the institute since 1999.
“I don't have any statistics on recidivism but there have been some national studies that found that faith-based programs do reduce recidivism,” said department spokesman Sterling Ivey.
In the "faith-based" dormitories, scattered throughout parts of the prison, inmates of mixed religions lived together and attended classes in "parenting, life skills and a variety of programmes,” Ivey added. The inmates "draw support from one another in the dorms.”
Ivey mentioned that the new programme would be open to a variety of religions; 120 religions are already recognized by the system through the faith-based dormitories.
Officials also stated that while prisoners with no religious affiliation would be permitted to stay at the facility, they would be mandated to attend the faith based programme; inmates now housed at Lawtey who do not wish to participate in the programme, would be transferred to other prisons.
“This prison will be open to those of all faiths and those of no faith,” Ivey said. “To be successful as a prisoner at Lawtey you have to participate in programs.”
While, according to Ivey, “most of the inmates that are there wish to stay,” and no complaints were filed “within the system” about the religious units already in the system, the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State contested the transition.
Howard Simon, executive director of America Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said the decision to expand the faith-based approach from dormitories inside prisons to an entire prison is on the thin edge of the constitution.
“This may be a good program and a successful program, but that doesn't mean it should be sponsored by government,” Simon said. “Under our constitutional system, there are some things that can't be sponsored by government, but our governor has a blind spot when it comes to separation of church and state.”
Simon predicted that the faith-based prison program would be one more step toward a “major constitutional test” of where the state must stop to maintain the constitutional amendments to keep church and state separated.
Rev. Barry Lynn, the executive director of the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, agreed.
“There are many of the same issues as in Florida but the Iowa case is more convoluted because it appears some special privileges are being granted to inmates willing to participate in what is really a 24-hour-a-day Bible study and religious education program,” said Lynn.
Lynn is also an attorney and an ordained United Church of Christ minister.
“States are not supposed to be in the business of converting people to any religion or to religion in general. This sounds like a perfectly bad example of government sanctioned religion,” Lynn added.
Nonetheless, Ivey held that the goal of the programme is not to convert, but to provide prisoners a “smoother transition back into society.”
“What we have found in our faith-based dormitories is that we have fewer problems — people are in those dorms because they want to be there to better their lives,” said Ivey.
Jeb Bush agreed in a release issued by his staff in Tallahassee.
"It is imperative for government to work in close and careful coordination with community and faith-based organizations because government alone will never solve the problems tearing the fabric of our society,” said Bush.
Lawtey prison officials said they expected the conversion to a faith-based facility to be completed within a few weeks.