Lawtey, Fl. -- Many successful stories are heard from Florida correctional institutions after transforming into a faith-based prison from a regular prison. Already two faith-based prisons were opened last month, one of them being the first faith-based prison for women in the nation.
The Lawtey prison, located about 30 miles southwest of Jacksonville, adopted faith-based programs in December and started promoting religious life for those who are seeking faith. Participation in the faith programs is voluntary, they are free to go back to regular prison if that is what they prefer. To date only 16 inmates have left Lawtey and transferred to a regular prison.
Although there is much criticism by civil liberties groups calling it violation to ‘separation between church and state,’ Gov. Jeb Bush and Corrections Secretary James Crosby are planning to continue push for launching faith-based programs in hope to reduce recidivism.
In fiscal 2002, the state spent more than $1.3 billion to house more than 73,000 inmates.
The Lawtey prison is home to inmates from 32 different denominations, including Christians, Jews and Muslims. About half of the inmates identify themselves as Baptists, although there are 132 Roman Catholics, 11 professing American Indian religions and three Wiccans.
Various programs are offered at the prison to transform the lives of prisoners. Some of the programs include anger management, managing finances, and overcoming addiction to drugs or alcohol. The prison also offers mentoring to help inmates overcome difficult times once they are released. Volunteers from the outside come to offer one-on-one counseling to inmates. Along with regular prayer sessions, the facility offers religious studies, choir practice, and other spiritual activities seven days a week.
There are some requirements to join Lawtey. There's no requirement that inmates believe in God, but they must have a belief they can turn their lives around and inmates must be nearing release within about three years and have clean prison records to be eligible.
Inmates and corrections officers alike agree that the atmosphere at Lawtey is safer compare to regular prisons.
Curtis Cason, 47, who has been struggling because of cocaine addiction for 22 years, has now found a new life in Christ. He believes Lawtey Correctional Institution will give him the tools to remain clean and free when he is released.
"Since I got here, there have been great changes," said Cason, who is in Lawtey for yet another drug conviction. He works in the prison's chapel library and would like to work with at-risk children after he's released. "My commitment to Christ is a lot stronger."
Cason also added that an inmate at Lawtey is treated more like a human being than in other institutions.
“These guys know they are going to get out, “ said Wright, of the Christian Family Chapel in south Jacksonville. “ We don't want them coming back. If they do, they can't be the husbands, fathers and brothers they need to be.”
Wright is optimistic about Florida's program and quotes black activist Malcolm X to describe the effort: "To have been a criminal is not a disgrace but, to remain one, that's the disgrace."
Corrections officials from several states are coming to Florida to observe effectiveness of Florida's program.
Other prisons and programs are either considering faith-based programs or have already adopted religious method to try to turn inmates away from crime. The Prison Fellowship Ministries runs its Christ-centered InnerChange Freedom Initiative in prisons in Minnesota, Kansas, Iowa and Texas. InnerChange begins with in-prison Bible education, followed by six to 12 months after release in which an inmate must hold a job and encouraged to be an active church member. The staff member help the ex-offender to assimilate into his family, community and workplace.
President Bush strongly believes in the need of faith-based programs. He wants to find ways to expand faith-based programs such as InnerChange Freedom Initiative in federal prisons, said Jim Towey, head of the White House office of faith-based initiatives.
On the other hand, those who are against faith-based programs despite its successful outcomes are filing lawsuits to stop faith-based programs from growing.
According to Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State in Washington, D.C., two lawsuits have been filed by Americans United against InnerChange in Iowa, alleging it indoctrinates inmates into Christianity, discriminates in employment and gives prisoners special rights if they participate in the program.