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Judges endorse faith-based prison program

Prison Fellowship founder Chuck Colson

A federal appeals court has ruled that a voluntary faith-based prison program that has proven effective in reducing recidivism by half can move forward at an Iowa prison.

“We are grateful to the Eighth Circuit for refusing to handcuff people of faith who are helping corrections officials turn inmates’ lives around,” Prison Fellowship President Mark Earley said. “What was at stake here, at its heart, is public safety. The keys to reducing recidivism and protecting the public from repeat offenses are the very kinds of effective rehabilitation and re-entry services provided by the InnerChange Freedom Initiative.”

“Prison inmates face daunting odds: statistically, two-thirds of them will be rearrested within three years of their release,” said Sen. Fred Thompson, a candidate for the GOP nomination for president. “As a society, we must do something to reduce this number and help returning inmates break the cycle of crime.

“Prison Fellowship’s program has already demonstrated great promise. This ruling will allow faith-based prison programming to continue in order to improve the odds of successful re-entry into society,” he said.

The ruling, by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Judges Roger Wollman and Duane Benton sitting as a panel for the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, reversed major parts of a district judge’s earlier ruling.

U.S. District Judge Robert Pratt had decided in a 2006 lawsuit brought by Americans United for Separation of Church and State that the InnerChange Freedom Initiative plan in an Iowa prison was illegal, and ordered it closed down. He also ordered IFI to repay the state of Iowa $1.5 million it was paid for contract services from 2000-2006.

The appeals court, however, found Pratt over-reached. The decision held Pratt’s injunction ordering the shutdown doesn’t apply because the IFI program no longer is partially funded by the state. The appeals ruling also reversed Pratt’s demand that the program be “pervasively sectarian” and affirmed that faith-based groups are not barred from partnering with government just because they are faith-based.

“We made a good-faith effort to structure the IFI program within the framework of the Constitution,” Earley said. “The Eighth Circuit has acknowledged that the operational changes we have made to the program have enabled it to remain in good constitutional standing.”

IFI, which has been documented to lower recidivism by half, runs nine privately funded programs in Texas, Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas, Arkansas and Missouri.

“This is a huge victory for faith-based programs,” said Eric Rassbach, the national litigation director for the Becket Fund, which represented IFI in the challenge. “A $1.5 million judgment against them would have crippled the most successful criminal rehabilitation program in the state.”

Earley told WND that the precedent is good because “it gives some greater clarity in an otherwise murky area of the law.”

“The court didn’t say you couldn’t take state money and do a faith-based program,” he noted, because that situation simply would require an offering of “alternatives.” However, he said the appeals court did return the case to Pratt, and the IFI legal team was studying the ruling’s implications.

InnerChange provides all its prisoner rehabilitation services free of charge.

Chuck Colson, the hatchet man for President Richard Nixon and a veteran of Watergate prison time, is the founder of the Prison Fellowship ministry. He has said it is ironic that IFI is facing opposition, despite its proven track record of success, while there’s virtually no opposition to the teachings of radical Islam that is going on in U.S. prisons.

“If, God forbid, an attack by home-grown Islamist radicals occurs on American soil, many, if not most, of the perpetrators will have converted to Islam while in prison,” he said in a Breakpoint commentary.

He cited a study called “Out of the Shadows” by researchers at George Washington University and the University of Virginia that concluded “radicalized prisoners” in U.S. prisons “are a potential pool of recruits by terrorist groups.”

The study notes there is virtually no monitoring by “authoritative Islamic chaplains” who should be responsible to see that materials calling for violence are not permitted.

Colson converted to Christianity in 1973 and the Boston Globe later said, “If Mr. Colson can repent of his sins, there just has to be hope for everybody.”

He served a brief time in prison starting in 1974 for Watergate-related charges and two years later founded Prison Fellowship Ministries, now the world’s largest outreach to prisoners, ex-cons and crime victims and families.

Colson also has written more than a dozen books, and in 1993 earned the prestigious Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, donating the $1 million prize to Prison Fellowship.

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