Appeal Filed to Overturn Faith-Based Prison Ruling

( [email protected] ) Sep 16, 2006 03:36 PM EDT

Prison Fellowship fed-exed an appeal this week in hopes of overturning an Iowa federal court ruling that shut down the ministry's prisoner rehabilitation program, which studies have proven to be effective.

Iowa Federal Court Judge Robert Pratt had ruled on June 2 that the InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI) – a comprehensive, faith-based pre-release program for prisoners – must stop its operations and repay the State of Iowa the $1.5 million paid to IFI under a contract for services over the past six years. IFI, Prison Fellowship, and the State of Iowa announced their appeal soon after the court decision and filed their first round of appeal briefs this week.

The appeal was sent Wednesday night as a Quaker social justice organization released a new report critiquing America's prisons. The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), which is also a co-recipient of the 1947 Nobel Peace Prize, published an analysis called "Beyond Prisons: A New Interfaith Paradigm for Our Failed Prison System."

The report traces the history and features of America's penal system which "isn't working to provide justice or public safety," said co-author Laura Magnani. "We need to start saying so, loudly and clearly." Harmon Wray – a minister and director of Restorative Justice Ministries, a project of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church – co-authored the report.

The critique didn't surprise Prison Fellowship's President, Mark Earley, who although has not yet seen the analysis, said, "Just about any study done of America's prisons today indicates that our prisons are in a woeful state of affairs, primarily because we are merely warehousing prisoners and hoping that they would come out of prison better individuals."

A July article in The Weekly Standard had traced America's penal system back to the Quakers who found an alternative in long-term imprisonment. Philadelphians, mostly Quakers, had sought an alternative to capital punishment and decided they would transform the criminal's character through a regimen of solitude, hard work, and religious renewal.

For more than 10 years, the InnerChange Freedom Imitative had dramatically helped reduce recidivism among prisoners after release, as a number of preliminary studies have shown. Earley noted that the recidivism rate of the graduates of the program was only eight percent after two years returning to prison. The program, which was created to maintain a prison environment that fosters respect for God's law and rights of others and to encourage the spiritual and moral regeneration of prisoners, is voluntary and inmates who participate can also choose to stop at any time.

The reforming regimes and rehabilitation programs in prisons, however, have largely disappeared and now, as Earley pointed out, prisons have become warehouses, just keeping criminals off the streets.

Crime rates are down, the Weekly Standard reported, but prisons are full.

"For centuries, people of faith have led prison reform efforts in America," said Earley. "Judge Pratt's ruling would put an end to this valuable resource for prison officials who are trying to send inmates back to their communities with transformed hearts and minds."

The InnerChange Freedom Initiative is currently active in five states, including Iowa, and will open in a sixth. But the recent ruling in Iowa has ordered for its removal.

"The lower court's decision would handcuff people of faith who are helping corrections officials turn inmates' lives around," said Earley. "What is at stake here, at its heart, is public safety. The key to reducing recidivism and protecting the public from repeat offenses is effective rehabilitative programming like that provided by the InnerChange Freedom Initiative."

The appeal was made on four points. Earley explained that the court found Prison Fellowship and IFI to be "state actors" which he said is "incorrect;" the court tried to define what an evangelical was and "got it wrong," basing the case not on what the ministries did but what the court perceived that they believed as evangelicals; the court misapplied the test to determine whether or not there was a violation of the establishment clause of the constitution; and the judge's "remedy" of shutting down the IFI program and ordering the ministry to pay back what the state provided was "not allowable and incorrect."

Arguments are expected to be heard early next year and Earley is "hopeful" that the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals will overturn the judge's ruling.