September 30, 2002
-- Martin E. Marty
Let’s take Prison Fellowship Ministries’ (PFM) word for it: they say, and they may well be able to back it up, that they have a good record of retraining, resituating, and preventing reimprisonment of convicts with whom they work in Texas. Also working through the Inner Change Freedom Initiative (IFI) in “God-pods” in Kansas, Iowa, and soon, Minnesota, their good works inspire applause by many, crossed fingers by some, and pointed fingers of accusation by others. These “others,” including Samantha M. Shapiro of FORWARD, pay attention to the good works but also raise serious questions about transgressions of church-state lines through such programs (http://www.forward.com/issues/2002/02.09.06/news5.html).
She cautions that the IFI allows inmates to “experience the transforming love of Jesus Christ,” according to its mission statements, “24 hours a day at jails paid for by taxpayers.” The program’s apologists boast that “we are creating disciples” who help each other, and placing them in “nurturing churches” upon release. The IFI does what it can to skirt the U.S. Constitution’s establishment clause by having the state fund only the “secular” elements of their jails -- facilities, guards, meals -- while PFM funds the 12 hours of religious programming each inmate absorbs daily, and builds the chapels.
The PFM and IFI workers are very explicit, making no secret of their reliance on and promotion of conversions to Jesus. Shapiro unhappily cites prominent Jewish jailhouse converts such as Barry Mankow, now a San Diego pastor. “They get extra points for us,” says Gary Friedman, the director of Jewish Prisoner Services International. Muslim prisoners who have come into range of the program protest the portrayals of Islam as non-saving and Muslims as rapists.
These prison programs, assuming that they are effective in rehab, still raise profound questions. Shapiro reports on two kinds of issues. Some critics point to the diversion of taxpayer funds, including those paid by people of other faiths or no faith, to convert prisoners, including those of other faiths or no faith, to a particular brand of evangelical Christianity. Others stress that such channeling of funds is unfair, since programs not run by PFM and IFI get slighted. In light of these compelling concerns, critics of the program remain on the alert.
And then, on the other hand, PFM and IFI have on their side the old American test of pragmatism: does it work? What PFM and IFI do evidently “works” in a field where “working” is rare. Whoever thought “church and state” represented a front where anything could ever be satisfactorily and semi-permanently settled?