High Hopes for Faith-Based Prisons

In a place where there are so many prisons, they call it the iron triangle.

It is a place where a group of more than 800 inmates aren't necessarily being punished but being enlightened. Where is this place? Raiford, Fla.

Florida is where nearly half of all felons released end up back in prison within five years. The state's prison system doesn't seem the most likely to enlighten its inmates.

In December 2003, Gov. Jeb Bush converted the medium-security Lawtey Correctional Institution into the nation's first entirely faith-based prison.

The governor put his plan into motion by stating "people of all faith, people who believe in a higher power are compelled to take actions in their lives that improve their chances of living a wholesome life that is crime-free."

At Lawtey, 28 different religions are represented -- Christianity, Orthodox Judaism, Wicca, Scientology.

"You don't know what it means to trust in the Lord until he's broken you ... the Lord spoke to my spirit and I asked him 'why me?' and he said 'why not you?' I believe in this program. I believe in faith-based prison," preached inmate Tony Love. Love said he found God at Lawtey.

Constitutional Principles

But what about the separation of church and state? Isn't this violating that mandate?

Officials at the Florida Department of Corrections say no, because all the religious materials and time devoted to religion come from more than 600 volunteers representing a variety of faiths.

But the Rev. Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State called this arrangement "constitutional quicksand."

Lynn said that "parts of a government cannot be run by religion, and it's just as wrong for the state of Florida to set up, in any way, a faith-based prison as if it were setting up its own faith-based schools, its faith-based fire depart or police department."

Since Bush oversaw the conversion of Lawtey, Florida's Department of Corrections has opened two more faith- and character-based prisons -- one for inmates serving long sentences and another that's exclusively for women.

The state plans to open as many as 30 more. The state believes that these kinds of programs mean less disciplinary action and lower recidivism, but no scientific study has proved anything of that nature.

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