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According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), at the end of 2012, there were about 1.8 million people incarcerated in the U.S., with almost 1.6 million of those in state prisons.

That’s a lot of citizens locked up. However, it may surprise people that prison populations on state levels have been declining for the last three years, so says the BJS. Those who have been robbed, carjacked or the victim of embezzlement might find that hard to believe. While the government provides no rhyme or reason for the decrease, there are those who credit what are called “faith-based” prison programs for some of the movement of offenders not returning to incarceration.

The faith-based prison concept actually began in 1976 in Brazil, but wasn’t adopted in the United States until 1997. According to the Prison Fellowship International website, a group of retired clergy, businessmen and other professionals–all volunteers–took it upon themselves to visit prisoners to assist them with needs that were not typically covered by prisons, such as psychological help, education and spiritual needs. The impact was so positive that the Brazilian government began turning entire prisons over to the group to operate.

That concept–called Association for Protection and Assistance of Convicts Methodology (APAC)–has since been adopted, revised and used in other areas including the U.S., Europe, other Latin American countries and nations in the Pacific.

In the United States, faith-based prison programs only operate on the state level. InnerChange is probably the most prevalent operator in the U.S. Based in Lansdowne, Va., InnerChange’s programs, which last about 18 months, revolve around Christian religion services, Bible study and prayer, substance abuse education, cognitive skills development, mentoring and follow-up after release.

The nation’s first InnerChange program was launched in 1997 for men in the Carol S. Vance Unit near Houston. It was a joint venture with Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship (the parent of InnerChange) and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. According to an article in www.ScienceBlog.com (August 2013), currently, there are eight InnerChange programs (three for females), which operate in Arkansas, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri and Texas.

Studies and reviews of programs such as InnerChange are mixed, although they lean toward the positive.

The upside

Florida’s department of corrections is a strong advocate for what state officials call “character-based” or faith-based programs.

According to Misty Cash, deputy director of communications for the Florida Department of Corrections, each one of the state’s 55 facilities has some elements of the faith-based programming available, while the operations at six are fully character-based.

“We are always looking to broaden our faith-based program,” said Cash, who admits that while Florida is still developing a tracking system, there are statistics that lean toward showing that the program works.

“As a general rule, one of out every three prisoners set free comes back … however, since we’ve been utilizing the character-based programs, that number has dropped for us, and those who have gone through the program have committed about 28 percent fewer infractions than comparable inmates elsewhere,” Cash explains.

About 6,000 prisoners are involved in the Florida effort, which partners with church-based and community organizations to run the programs. Florida does not use InnerChange.

Since the programs are staffed with volunteers and materials (such as Bibles) are donated, it saves the state money.

“First, it saves us money in terms of the lower rate of return offenders, and second, it provides programs that we don’t have to pay for,” Cash says.

In Minnesota, for example, state officials claim a savings of more than $3 million by decreasing recidivism, according to a Baylor University study published in the International Journal of Criminology and Sociology in August. The study examined the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, which was started by former Watergate figure Chuck Colson. Known as former President Richard Nixon’s “hatchet man,” Colson served time in federal prison. He says he started the InnerChange program to make good on a promise he made to fellow inmates to remember them and their families.

“The InnerChange program is a boon to taxpayers. It doesn’t rely on public funding. Yet, at the same time, it provides a benefit by reducing recidivism, which results in fewer costs associated with crime,” said Grant Duwe, Ph.D., research director for the Minnesota Department of Corrections.

After observing other faith-based programs, Indiana created its own, which allows prisoners in based on faith (any) or character.

That means that the prisoner must not have a record of disciplinary troubles. According to the National Institute of Corrections, the state established a 16-member board of a variety of people of different religions and professions from the community to make decisions regarding the facility. Unlike most other state units, Indiana also offers a similar facility for juveniles.

In Indiana, 1,164 adult participants completed the program in first three years. Of those, 227 have been released back into their respective communities. Only 21 (9.25 percent) have been returned to the Indiana Department of Corrections. Indiana has grown its program from three units at inception in 2005 to 15 in 2013.

Like Indiana, the state of Georgia Department of Corrections sat on the fence for many years and watching the performance of faith-based and character-based concepts in other states. Then after visiting a faith-based prison in neighboring Florida, Georgia implemented its first model “to provide the State of Georgia, the Department of Corrections and its citizens with a model for positive change by allowing offenders to strengthen their mind, body and spirit in an environment that promotes positive change,” according to the Dept. of Corrections page on the state’s website.

Georgia now has 13 prisons with faith-based dormitories within its state prisons, and one fully-dedicated facility in Walker County. It opened in 2011 as the Walker Faith and Character Based Prison with 400 inmates going through a two-year program.

“I think this program is going to do wonders for me,” said Angela DeSimone in the Atlanta Journal Constitution at the opening. At the time, she was an inmate at the facility in Hawkinsville, Ga. It has one of the state’s character- and faith-based dormitories. DeSimone was a drug addict who got caught up in a burglary and was sentenced to seven years. She says the program has helped her break a pattern of bad behavior. “I can see the change in me already in terms of not wanting to get in trouble. I want to do the right thing for once in my life.”

The negative

But there are skeptics about how effective faith-based prisons are. An article in USA Today on Oct. 13, 2007, questioned claims that these facilities save taxpayers money and reduce recidivism.

“Evidence that they reduce recidivism is inconclusive, and skeptics question whether the prevailing evangelical tone of the units discriminates against inmates who don’t share their conservative Christian outlook,” the USA today article. In fact, in Iowa, the InnerChange program has been the target of a lawsuit filed by Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The organization claims that inmates who do not subscribe to the Evangelical approach were “denigrated,” according to the USA Today article. A federal judge agreed and the program in Iowa was shut down.

Although the lawsuit claimed that InnerChange did not welcome Catholics and Muslims, in particular, InnerChange denied it and insists it welcomes a diversity of inmates. InnerChange, which cites the Vance facility in Texas as an example of the program’s diversity (which includes Catholics), is appealing the ruling.

Who can join

Most of the faith-based facilities are open on a voluntary basis to anyone, even murderers. However, in the InnerChange programs, sex offenders and inmates with disciplinary histories are excluded.

According to Prison Fellowship’s website, prisoners who volunteer to be part of the faith-based program must go through an orientation to make sure the participant is “willing to respect the values and to explore the implications of Christianity …”

Once accepted, the prisoners are moved to a special section or dorm. They go through three phases—learning to live in that particular unit or community; learning to serve others; and learning to function in the outside world. Often as part of the last phase, the prisoners work outside the prison during the day and return at night.

It was rumored that Jesse Jackson Jr. was going to a faith-based prison, but that is not the case because he has been sentenced to a federal rather than a state facility. He is expected to begin his 30 month sentence in November.

Carol Ozemhoya | OW Contributor