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Court dismantles
Christian prison program

Prison Fellowship’s pioneering Christian program at a Texas prison, which has slashed repeat offender rates, could be challenged after judges ruled that a similar program elsewhere in the state was unconstitutional.

The “God Pod” unit at Tarrant County Jail near Dallas, which offered a 120-day Christian curriculum to inmates, was dismantled Thursday following the Texas Supreme Court ruling that it indicated an “official endorsement of religion,” reported The Dallas Morning News.

Prison Fellowship public relations director Krista Winter Obitts said yesterday that officials at the ministry — founded by former Watergate prisoner Charles Colson — were considering the implications of the court’s decision with concern.

“We understand that we have a prison ministry that is somewhat controversial in some people’s eyes,” she said. “We have tried to do everything as constitutionally correct as possible.”

The fellowship’s InnerChange program — which the ministry describes as “the boldest experiment ever undertaken by a prison ministry” — was launched at the Carol Vance Unit in Sugar Land, near Houston, in 1997. Currently 180 prisoners are following the 18-month, pre-release program that features Christian discipleship as well as job-skills training. Only 7 of 121 graduates of the 18-month course have since returned to prison — a recidivism rate of 6 percent. The national average is between 40 percent and 60 percent.

In the last two years, similar PF-run units have opened at prisons in Newton, Iowa, and Winfield, Kan. These two each receive $200,000 a year from state funds for nonreligious costs of the program, while the Texas unit’s $1 million annual budget is met by PF.

The Tarrant County program ruled unconstitutional was founded in 1992 by then-Sheriff David Williams and chaplain Hugh Atwell, said The Houston Chronicle. The Chaplain’s Education Unit taught those who volunteered to join the program what the founders called “orthodox Christianity.” But the following year two former inmates — one Jewish, the other a Jehovah’s Witness — sued.

In 1997, a state court ruled that the unit was constitutional, a decision upheld by the Second Court of Appeals two years later, reported the News. But yesterday the Supreme Court said the unit conveyed the “impermissible message that the county preferred the personal religious views of the sheriff and chaplain over other views.”

By late afternoon, prisoners in the program had been moved to the general jail population, said Chief Deputy Jim Willett.

“They’ll continue with programs and counseling and religion services, but not in a specialized area,” he told the newspaper. “It sort of set off a bad connotation that those people were getting special treatment.”

The ruling was welcomed by the American Jewish Congress, whose southwest region had filed one of the suits along with the American Civil Liberties Union. Richard Rohan, an AJC board member and attorney who represented the plaintiff, said the decision raises questions about the constitutionality of the PF program.

“We hope that it serves as a caution for other programs in the future,” he said, reported the Chronicle. “There are right ways some of these programs can be implemented, but it’s not running roughshod over the Constitution.”

Reprinted with permission of Strang Communications.

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