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.
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.
Recidivism is the big issue in the penal community. Nationwide, some 600,000 federal and state prisoners will complete their terms or be paroled this year. Of that number, 65 percent (about 400,000) will be rearrested within three years, and most will go back to jail.
But recidivism is just one issue in what has become a controversial program. Americans United for Separation of Church and State and its president, Barry Lynn, brought suit against Prison Fellowship and IFI, claiming that IFI is pervasively religious and that as such it should not enjoy state funding. Judge Pratt's bulky and wandering 140-page decision suggests that American United's lawyers were persuasive on all fronts-although the case has now been appealed to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. This summer Judge Pratt also stayed the effect of his decision, which means the IFI program will continue at the Newton prison, largely in its present format, until the appeal is resolved.
AU argued that the glowing IFI recidivism claims are still largely anecdotal, and IFI's lawyers apparently didn't use recidivism figures to defend IFI. Judge Pratt wrote: "There was no information presented at trial about whether InnerChange participants are more or less prone to recidivism than other inmates."
What's tougher to argue with is the testimony of warden Mapes, also taken from the court records, about what he sees day by day in the prison he supervises. "You see inmates who hold the doors, they look you in the eye, they demonstrate pro-social behaviors that are-you don't have to tell people, you can just take them on the tour and let them see, and their comment is universal: 'What is different here than the others?' And it's the pro-social behavior. It is the thing that we hope [in] corrections make a difference."
Mapes also testified in court that for an annual cost of just $310,000, "I get a substance abuse program, I get a victim impact program, I get a computer education program, I get pro-social skills programs, and I get engaged inmates who are actively involved in something constructive, keeping them busy, which even inmates have testified to that's a positive thing, and I get supervision of offenders either in classes, in activities, in recreation by somebody other than the limited staff I have."
WORLD's half-day tour of the Newton prison, including an unaccompanied and unmonitored lunch with inmates chosen at random, validated Mapes' claims.
There is no doubt that the IFI philosophy is thoughtfully Christ-centered and thoroughly Bible-based. As Americans United states on its website, IFI greets every inmate with a discussion of individual sin and its consequences. IFI itself calls its approach "transformational" rather than "therapeutic."
In the process, however, IFI's critics miss the point that its program can be Christian through and through without also being a tool for purposefully proselytizing prisoners. Both Dan Kingery, who heads IFI in Iowa, and Mark Early, president of Prison Fellowship, stressed to WORLD that IFI, wherever it operates, is secular in its contractual relationships. "Here in Iowa," Kingery said, "the DOC wants to lower the recidivism rate. They ask for help in achieving that goal. They invite organizations to bid on the provision of programs that will meet that goal. We have typically been the only ones to bid. In good conscience, we are here to help lower the recidivism rate. And we're doing just that."
What if in the process a particular religious slant is emphasized? The judge was emphatic in his decision: "For all practical purposes, the state has literally established an Evangelical Christian congregation within the walls of one of its penal institutions, giving the leaders of that congregation, i.e., InnerChange employees, authority to control the spiritual, emotional, and physical lives of hundreds of Iowa inmates. There are no adequate safeguards present, nor could there be, to ensure that state funds are not being directly spent to indoctrinate Iowa inmates."
But Kingery insists that what is so offensive to the judge "is only incidental to our main goal. Yes, teaching such values is part of our approach, without a doubt. I would even say it is essential to achieving our secular goal. But evangelism is not our main goal here in the prison. Fighting recidivism, equipping the prisoners for life in the outside world-that's our main goal in this context. We're helping Iowa achieve its goals, and probably for a majority of the inmates, that's as far as it goes. Only a minority, probably, get intrigued enough with our worldview so that they also become Christians. But that's not our main goal. God's in charge of those details."
It is a fine point-and one lost apparently on Judge Pratt in his written decision. After saying it is wrong for him to be involved in religious value judgments, he caricatures evangelical Christians as having no ultimate goals other than winning converts. The judge relied on the testimony of Chicago Divinity School professor Winnifred Fallers Sullivan as an "expert witness." Comprising nearly 10 pages of the judge's decision, Sullivan's testimony dissects Prison Fellowship's belief system, and that which she said underpinned InnerChange. She said those beliefs, including "the substitutionary and atoning death of Jesus," reflect "a legalistic understanding of the sacrifice of Jesus," which, according to Sullivan, "is not shared by many Christians."
Finally, in wrestling with the funding issue, Judge Pratt becomes punitive in his decision making.
By terms of the contract between IFI and Iowa's Department of Corrections (IFI was the only bidder), IFI covers 60 percent of the program's cost-a sum provided ultimately by donors to IFI and Prison Fellowship-while the other 40 percent gets picked up from state funding.
A huge challenge in administering any such program is to determine which costs are secular in focus and which are "pervasively sectarian." Was the prison copying machine used to duplicate attendance records (a clearly secular purpose) or to prepare notes for a Bible class (a clearly sectarian mission)? In the three-week trial, IFI officials conceded their recordkeeping could be more careful in those areas. Judge Pratt in his decision stunned the defendants (and perhaps even the plaintiffs) by ordering that IFI refund some $1.5 million-or virtually every penny that the state of Iowa has paid IFI to fulfill its contracts over the last four years.
But Judge Pratt made it clear that even if IFI had used no public money and had relied on charitable giving to fund it from private sources (as is done in three of the six states where IFI operates), he still would have ordered an end to the program. The program is still so pervasively religious, he ruled, that however it might be funded, it constitutes an illegal establishment of religion by the state.
Fallout from the Iowa decision will be sorted as the case moves through the appellate process. IFI officials argue that they've been put in a no-win situation. Judge Pratt's decision on the one hand acknowledges that no prisoner is coerced into participation, but on the other hand suggests that the program is successful enough and attractive enough that inmates are forced to trade away their religious freedom in order to get the benefits of IFI. That's ominous for faith-based programs with social goals, where any religious aspect of their programs may disqualify them from public funding, even from the opportunity to work alongside government programs.
Inmate Travis Ireland said bluntly: "That sucks for organizations like the Salvation Army or St. Vincent's Homeless shelter. They may be doing the best work-and then they get put out of business."
Indeed, Americans United boasted on its website: "The June 2 decision . . . was a staggering loss not just for Early's group but perhaps for key elements of President George W. Bush's 'faith-based' initiative as well."
Meanwhile, the implications for the 214 IFI participants at Newton are painfully practical. Prisoner Gregg Hanson said that until he came under the influence of IFI, he was part of "a breeding ground for criminals, a grad school where you learned how to be a better crook. We learned how to cook meth, how to smack your old lady around, how to control other people, how to prey on them to get what we wanted.
"This place now has become the opposite of that," Hanson told WORLD. "Why would a judge-why would anybody-want to put a stop to that?"