Thursday, December 08, 2005

Susie and Julia and I recently told you about a 19-year-old Catholic kid in Michigan, up on a marijuana charge, who was compelled to participate in a program meant to convert him to fundamentalist Protestantism; the program was disguised as drug rehab, even though it had no drug counselors.

I'd like to be able to tell you that that was an isolated case. Apparently it's not. I'd like to be able to tell you that only small local operations like the one in Michigan cross the church-state line blatantly with the government's blessing -- but that's not true, either.

The good folks at Americans United for the Separation of Church and State have a similar story to tell you, involving a guy you might have heard of:

A select group of inmates at central Iowa's Newton Correctional Facility has been learning some controversial things lately.

They're being told that the Bible ordains men to run households; that homosexuality is a sin; that non-Christian religions are "of Satan" and that only persons baptized as adults can get into Heaven.

Thanks to the Iowa legislature and officials at the Iowa Department of Corrections, the inmates are learning all of this courtesy of the taxpayers....

Newton, a medium-security institution with about 900 inmates, has been sponsoring a controversial evangelical Christian indoctrination program called the InnerChange Freedom Initiative since 1999. Founded by ex-Watergate felon Charles W. Colson’s Prison Fellowship Ministries, InnerChange seeks to rehabilitate prisoners by converting them to one ultra-conservative form of Christianity....

Ah, but surely a program associated with a worldly sophisticate like Chuck Colson will avoid the tackier practices sometimes associated with Protestant evangelism. Right?

Er, wrong:

One inmate reported during discovery that an InnerChange staffer told him, "Catholics aren't really Christians." Another inmate wrote in his journal, "Today we had some serious Catholic bashing in class. It hurt me very deeply. Never before had I heard serious criticism toward my faith. Spent the rest of the day trying to sort it out in my...mind and put away the bitterness."

At trial, inmates testified that InnerChange personnel likened the pope to Hitler and to the Antichrist. Other inmates testified that InnerChange staff asked Catholics not to read from their version of the Bible. A manual used in the program advised readers to be wary of "pronouncements of church officials such as bishops, cardinals, popes."...

Another InnerChange book goes beyond Catholic bashing and includes a "Spiritual checklist" of groups to be wary of. Islam, Hinduism, Mormonism, Unitarianism, Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Science, New Age, Buddhism, Bahaism and Native American faiths all made the roster.

And the inmates are really encouraged to play along:

InnerChange inmates, for example, have access to separate private bathrooms instead of unscreened toilets in their shared cells. They have keys to their cells and enjoy greater mobility within the unit. Inmates taking part in the program live in a wing that was once an "honor unit" designed to reward inmates for good behavior.

Inmates enrolled in InnerChange receive guaranteed prison jobs and are paid for taking part in the program. They get special visits with family members and, unlike other inmates, have access to a computer room and a music room.

Perhaps most significantly, InnerChange inmates can more easily get credit for treatment classes that give them a much better chance at parole than other inmates.

InnerChange inmates' parole chances are also increased by lax disciplinary procedures that keep misconduct by program inmates from showing up on their records.

And this is all taxpayer-supported.

Oh, and despite that, the program is allowed to reject job applicants who aren't religiously correct.

Americans United filed a lawsuit; the trial is proceeding. Consider throwing AU some cash if you think lawsuits like this are a good idea.

More on the prison program here, from its Web site.

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