Cover Story

Handcuffing prisons

A court decision could put an end to a successful rehab program that is cutting the rate of repeat offenses-all because it lacks "adequate safeguards" against establishing religion

Issue: "Help on the inside," Aug. 12, 2006

NEWTON, Iowa- Terry Mapes is a man modest enough to accept help when someone offers. At the Newton Correctional Facility in central Iowa, he knows from hands-on experience just how needy America's prison community has become. Several years ago when he was a young prison guard, three enraged inmates beat up Mapes and left him for dead.

So when Mapes became warden here in 2001 and discovered that Prison Fellowship-the largest prison ministry in the world-had joined Iowa's Department of Corrections (DOC) in shaping a program to help inmates prepare for life outside prison, he did not hesitate to endorse the effort.

Mapes isn't sorry for that decision. The program that resulted, he thinks, has done extraordinary good. It led to a meeting between Mapes and one of his attackers, where Mapes had the opportunity to extend personal forgiveness.

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But Robert W. Pratt, a federal district judge in Des Moines, ruled on June 2 that the whole effort is an unconstitutional "establishment of religion" by the state and must be discontinued. Mapes is disappointed.

The controversial program is called the InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI). Patterned after similar programs administered by Prison Fellowship in Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, and Minnesota, it allows Iowa's corrections department to contract with IFI for specific services in one of five wings at the Newton facility.

Iowa boasts one of the better prison systems in the nation. Within that system, the 9-year-old facility here just south of Newton (home of Maytag washers) is the newest of all state prisons, and the one prisoners want to live in. Within the Newton facility, Unit E is the wing-if you have to live in prison at all-you'd almost certainly prefer.

Surprisingly pleasant, Unit E is a distinct improvement on many college dorms. It looks and smells clean, has lots of daylight, and the concrete floors shine with a new coat of wax. Prisoners share big and open bathrooms and showers, an arrangement often preferred to intrusive toilets and showers in cramped individual cells. The doors in Unit E are solid wood-not steel as in the other sections. And every inmate has a key to his own cell.

Security in Unit E is handled by uniformed (but unarmed) corrections officers. But IFI runs the day-to-day rehab program. This is where you come to be taught the lessons you'll need to make a success of your release 18 months later. So it's up at 5:30 in the morning, with a recommendation-but not a demand-that you spend the day's opening minutes in a personal time of Bible reading and prayer. The half-hour from 6:00 to 6:30 is a required group devotional period.

Then comes a day filled with classes. They might be focused on personal finance, time management, anger control, family relations, and job preparedness. Or they might be classes in Ephesians or basic Bible doctrine. There will be lots of Scripture memorization.

Other sections of the prison (Unit A is for the more hardened inmates, including some serving life sentences) have television privileges. If you come to Unit E, though, you agree to say goodbye to TV-for the whole 18 months. You also agree to watch your language. And your attitude.

"I had a really foul mouth," confessed Brandon Tate Jr., who is serving a long term for first-degree burglary. "That was the hardest part for me." Tate told WORLD how a decision to become part of Unit E means turning your back on a whole prison culture. "It's us against them," he says, describing the assumed mindset of inmates against the authorities. "When that is what controls your heart, and it's what everybody expects of you, it's not an easy thing to change."

But change is each inmate's choice; every resident in Unit E has volunteered to be here. Both IFI personnel and inmates get a detailed look at each other to decide if the fit is good. Even after you get into the program, but decide that maybe it's just too much, you can go back to your old unit without penalty. That does happen; the IFI program is not a breeze.

But partly because it is so tough and demanding, the IFI program is also effective. After less than 10 years with the whole program, and only six years here in this Iowa facility, it's a little early to compare IFI recidivism rates with the national average of 65 percent. Yet early indicators, buttressed by external professional studies, suggest that graduates from Unit E and other IFI units have an astonishingly lower rate of returning to prison-perhaps as low as under 20 percent.

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