Friday, October 28, 2005

Fed Court suit in Iowa challenges prison-faith based intiativeLawsuit targets prison ministry DES MOINES (AP) - A Christian prison program subsidized by the state is discriminatory, giving preferential treatment to inmates who enroll, a lawyer for an advocacy group argued Monday. Inmates pray for a newcomer to the InnerChange program at the Newton Correctional Facility in Newton, Iowa.Opening arguments were held in U.S. District Court in a lawsuit filed by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, challenging state funding of the "InnerChange Freedom Initiative," a program meant to reduce recidivism. Iowa prison officials hired Reston, Va.-based Prison Fellowship Ministries, a group founded by former Nixon aide Chuck Colson, to offer the program at the Newton Correctional Facility. The Bible-based program, which also operates in Kansas, Minnesota and Texas, has been praised by President Bush, but lawyers for Americans United have said it calls into question the president's faith-based initiative. "InnerChange has taken over an entire unit of a state prison and turned it into an evangelical church," said Americans United lawyer Alex Luchenitser. However, "most who enroll do so not to be closer to God, but to take advantage of the special benefits," he said. Participants live in a special unit that is more like a college dorm than a prison, with separate bathrooms and doors that are unlocked by keys given to inmates, Luchenitser said. They get special visits from family members and are guaranteed jobs and access to computers, benefits other inmates may not have access to. InnerChange inmates receive classes required for early parole while inmates not enrolled in the program have to wait to take the classes, Luchenitser said. They receive in-house discipline, which Luchenitser said "makes misconduct invisible to the Board of Parole." Inmates who don't subscribe to the "evangelical teachings" of InnerChange "are treated badly" and expelled from the program, he said. John Hammers, a convicted sex offender who testified that he was an InnerChange graduate, said he asked to transfer from the Fort Dodge prison to Newton because of the InnerChange program and to escape prison overcrowding at Fort Dodge. "You're going to an honor dorm," Hammers said of the unit where InnerChange inmates are housed. Hammers, who testified via the state's video conferencing system, identified himself as a Christian, but said inmates were not required to convert to enroll. He also testified that participating in the program did not reduce his sentence. Two other inmates who testified from the Iowa State Penitentiary at Fort Madison said information they received about InnerChange prompted them to file grievances with the Department of Corrections. "I would have to believe what they believe to get into that program," said Jerry Ashburn, serving a life sentence for first-degree murder. Bobby Shelton, serving a sentence on theft and drug charges, said he is Muslim and information about the program indicated he would have to say prayers that identify Jesus as the son of God. "There is no possible way for me as a Sunni Muslim to participate without blaspheming my faith - blaspheming my God," he said. Anthony Troy, a lawyer for Prison Fellowship Ministries, said prisoners "enter into the program with eyes wide open." "There is no evidence of inmates being threatened with punishment or privileges being taken away," he said. "There is no evidence of coercion. "The purported niceties . . . are not used as an incentive," Troy said. Luchenitser said the state has spent more than $1 million on supplies and wages of InnerChange employees, who are called "Biblical counselors." Discrimination spreads to the employees, who must sign an agreement saying they will subscribe to the teachings of InnerChange, he said.

No comments: