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Religion | Church-state separatists threaten funding for a prison ministry that changes lives

Issue: "Riots in France," Nov. 19, 2005

Robert Robinson believes deeply that all things happen for a reason. He believes his two trips to prison-in 2000 for assault and 2002 for drug dealing-were gifts from God. And he believes his encounter with the InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI) prison ministry program saved his life. "I'd been shot twice and stabbed," the 25-year-old Iowa welder told WORLD. "If I hadn't gone to IFI, I'd be dead right now."

Despite numerous success stories similar to that of Mr. Robinson, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State has filed suit against IFI and the Iowa Department of Corrections for what it deems a violation of the Constitution's Establishment Clause. Americans United president Barry Lynn called IFI "a government-funded conversion program," and argued that "no American should be strong-armed by the government to adopt a particular religious viewpoint."

But Mr. Robinson was never strong-armed. Like all inmates involved with IFI, he entered the program voluntarily. Like most who graduate, he now commends the life lessons taught there-also voluntarily.

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IFI is a pre-release 18- to 24-month rehabilitation program operated under the banner of Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship Ministries. It began in Texas in 1997 with the support of then-Gov. George W. Bush and has since expanded to Minnesota, Kansas, and Iowa. Inmates involved in the program are separated from the rest of the prison and taught core values such as integrity, responsibility, and productivity. IFI is explicitly evangelical but does not require a profession of faith in Christ for graduation. Jews, Muslims, and even atheists have completed the program successfully.

Americans United takes no legal issue with the presence of IFI in state prisons, begrudging only its use of government funds and special access to partitioned prison facilities. While the Texas program raises 100 percent of its budget from private contributions, the programs elsewhere receive between 20 percent and 40 percent of their budgets from the state.

Prison Fellowship president and former Virginia Attorney General Mark Earley told WORLD that if the court outlaws IFI's current state support, "then we'll do all the programs by raising private funds." IFI's latest expansion plan into Arkansas intends to do just that.

What then is the problem? If IFI can achieve its ends privately and so appease strict church and state separatists like Americans United, why not avoid litigation and proceed?

The answer stretches far beyond the scope of rehabilitating prisoners, Mr. Earley says: "A defeat in this case would really chill any state governments, local governments, or the federal government from partnering with faith-based nonprofits to solve social problems." President Bush's faith-based initiative has helped quell government discrimination against highly effective faith-based social programs, opening financial channels long since available only to secular groups-regardless of success rates.

In preliminary studies, IFI's rate of success is promising. The University of Pennsylvania's Center for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society analyzed data compiled by the Criminal Justice Policy Council of Texas and found that just 8 percent of prisoners who completed the IFI program, including six months of post-release follow-up, were incarcerated within two years of their release. The recidivism rate in a comparison group outside the IFI program was 20.3 percent.

Mark Earley meets with an inmate in Texas.

Mr. Robinson plans on shattering the two-year period used in the study. Since his release from prison this past March, he has gotten married, held a job, and set aside a lifetime of anger and bitterness to forgive his family-significant accomplishments for a drug-dealing street tough raised by violent alcoholics.

By age 15, Mr. Robinson had dropped out of school. By 18, he had fathered a child out of wedlock. By 19, he was in prison. Where secular treatment programs failed, IFI succeeded. "I got to see other men cry out for help and change their lives," Mr. Robinson recalls. "The program gave me hope that, 'Wow, maybe there is something different for my life.'"

One month after his father was crushed beneath a truck that fell off its blocks in the summer of 2002, Mr. Robinson became a Christian. He has since come to believe that even tragedies are within the scope of a divine plan. That conviction prevented him from reverting to old patterns of anger when his toddler son died in a house fire on Oct. 29, 2003. Mr. Robinson had been praying for the opportunity to demonstrate his new-found peace and stability to family and friends. Standing before them in handcuffs and shackles at his son's memorial service, he did one better, preaching the gospel and overseeing an altar call for salvation-to which his future wife responded.

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