Prison ministry questions

image002BAlan Cooperman at the Washington Post has an interesting story about a federal faith-based initiative to prepare inmates for release. I think it's a very important story and I could not agree more with Americans United for Separation of Church and State in raising concerns. Having said that, let's look at how Cooperman frames and discusses the story:

The Justice Department plans to set aside cellblocks at up to half a dozen federal prisons for an ambitious pilot program to prepare inmates for release. But it has produced an outcry by saying that it wants a private group to counsel the prisoners according to a single faith.

Taking Cooperman at his word, I searched for all the outcry over this program. The only story I could find was his. And the only group raising concern that I could find is Americans United. There are other things, too. For instance, the phrase "up to half a dozen." This reminds me of when I would go shopping with my mom. When we were deciding what to buy, she would always round up the price of what I wanted. A $40 blouse for me was "almost $50" while a $60 blouse for her was also "about $50." Not fair. Anyway, I see no need for the word "dozen" to describe a number between zero and six.

The Justice Department plans, about which no specifics are given, apparently do not establish which religion the program should be, but they rule out both secular programs and interfaith programs. I would gripe about my hard-earned tax money going to any religion or religious program that I don't believe in, but the aformentioned "outcry" is more narrow in scope:

The Washington-based advocacy group Americans United for Separation of Church and State charged in a letter to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales that the Justice Department's Bureau of Prisons has tailored its bidding requirements to fit one particular program: an immersion in evangelical Christianity offered by Charles W. Colson's Prison Fellowship Ministries.

Outlining 10 ways in which the Bureau of Prisons' request for proposals from private contractors dovetails with Prison Fellowship's "InnerChange" program, Americans United contended that the plan is unconstitutional and urged Gonzales to withdraw it. Gonzales has not responded to the April 19 letter, Americans United said.

Okay, so there we get to the story. This is part of an ongoing campaign by Americans United against InnerChange! It would be nice for the reader to know about American United's campaign, but Cooperman doesn't mention it.

Independent experts on constitutional law asked by The Washington Post to review the bidding documents also questioned the plan's legality.

I'm all for qualifying the word experts, but what does independent mean? Especially considering that the two independent experts he goes to are Erwin Chemerinsky, an attorney who has argued in front of the Supreme Court for the National Organization for Women and Douglas Laycock, who has writen for the not-so-independent publication The American Prospect. Don't get me wrong, I am a fan of Laycock. I just don't think it serves anyone's interest to refer to him as independent. No one is independent. And I bet we could play a six-degrees-of-separation game between Americans United and these two attorneys and we could end in one or two steps.

Cooperman quotes a Justice spokesman who says the plan is noncoercive and constitutional. He also says the bidding requirements were not tailored to Prison Fellowship Ministries.

Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman Traci L. Billingsley said $3 million has been appropriated for the program. She said it is possible that the bureau could approve several proposals and set up, say, a Roman Catholic program at one prison, a Jewish program at another and an evangelical Protestant program at a third.

"It's early to speculate, but we hope we'll have multiple contractors and multiple locations," she said. She added that she did not know whether inmates would be allowed to transfer between prisons to participate in a program of their choice.

handsSounds about right. The whole point of faith-based initiatives is to treat all religions as equally valid and give them equal access to the huge piles of cash for social programs we give out every day. As a taxpayer who does not want to fund any religion other than my own or give any charity at all to any religion other than my own, these programs infuriate me. The thing is that even though Americans United has its blinders on against Chuck Colson, the religion with the most notable prison ministry is Islam. And even if the rules were written to support Prison Fellowship (which was never substantiated in this piece), other religions could quickly adapt their programs to fit the guidelines. Stephen Schwartz's analysis in The Weekly Standard gives a descriptive look at the Wahhabism practiced in prisons today:

Soon after September 11, 2001, I and a group of individuals with whom I have worked first began consultations on the problem of radical Islam in prison. We identified change in the prisons as a leading item in the agenda of our nation in defeating the terrorist enemy. Some of us had received letters from American Muslim prison inmates complaining that radical chaplains had harassed and otherwise subjected moderate Muslims in prison to humiliation, discrimination, confiscation of moderate Islamic literature, and even physical threats.

Muslim chaplains have established an Islamic radical regime over Muslim convicts in the American prisons; imagine each prison Islamic community as a little Saudi kingdom behind prison walls, without the amenities. They have effectively induced American authorities to establish a form of "state Islam" or "government-certified Islam" in correctional systems.

Cooperman frequently writes about the same issues that Americans United cares about. He also frequently takes the Americans United angle. I think Cooperman is one of the religion beat's best technical writers. He's enjoyable to read. He also explains complex issues in a way that's easy for the reader to understand. I just wish he would have looked more broadly at this issue. Programs like these could produce an outcry among Americans if they got the bigger picture of what state-sanctioned religious activity in prisons could mean to them personally and to our country's Constitutional disestablishment of religion. Perhaps he can cover those things in a follow-up. In the meantime, my church will continue our prison ministries without government funds.

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