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Court-approved: John with his book

Get into jail free

Prisons | A federal court ruling has pried open the doors of California jails to Bible study materials

Issue: "Goodbye again," June 9, 2007

Following his 1997 release from a seven-year stint behind bars, Ronald John has spent the last decade struggling to get his message back inside. As founder and director of Jesus Christ Prison Ministry (JCPM) in Lucerne Valley, Calif., the self-made minister ships his self-published workbook, Change Your Life Biblically, to inmates seeking biblical teaching.

But until recently, many of those shipments never reached their intended audience, bouncing back to JCPM off an overly protective wall between church and state. "Ever since we've been doing this, getting books into prisons has been a real pain," John said. "The heartache of wanting to help an inmate and being refused by the institution is extremely disappointing."

A federal court helped ease such heartache last fall when it ruled that the California State Prison in Corcoran could not bar religious materials from reaching prisoners. Last month, the Pacific Justice Institute (PJI), a nonprofit legal defense organization, parlayed that decision into a broader settlement with the California prison system. PJI negotiated the adoption of a pilot program for screening religious literature and CDs. If proved sufficiently secure, the program will become standard policy in prisons statewide.

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The settlement is the first indicator that last fall's court decision has enough teeth to effect sweeping change, potentially widening doors for prison ministries across the country. In his opinion, Judge Dale Drozd ruled that blocking Bible study materials, even on grounds that they may pose a security risk, violates both the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a federal statute reinforcing the Constitution's protection of free religious exercise.

The Corcoran prison had defended its policy of rejecting JCPM materials because the ministry was not among a list of approved vendors such as Amazon.com. Receiving mail from non-approved vendors forced extra security screening by the prison staff. Judge Drozd found that extra work load insufficient to justify the denial of religious rights.

PJI president Brad Dacus, whose organization represented three inmates and JCPM in the lawsuit, believes the prison's security defense was little more than a smokescreen for anti-religious bias. "If the prison was able to demonstrate that they couldn't take any books at all, because they had to inspect them and they were just short on manpower, and that all books everywhere had to go through some third-party vendor, then we would have had to look at the legitimacy of that argument," he said. "But because the prison already allows all kinds of secular books and magazines to be sent directly to inmates, singling out Bible studies as overly burdensome just didn't fly with us. And it didn't fly with the judge."

Since the ruling and subsequent settlement, Dacus has received thanks from prison ministries across California. He believes the federal court precedent will ripple outward: "I don't believe in hype more than truth will allow, but this case truly warrants excitement for all prison ministries."

PJI chief counsel Kevin Snider, who argued the case before the court and negotiated the settlement, believes all citizens should share that excitement, given that spiritual transformation can significantly reduce recidivism rates: "Even for those who are irreligious, it's in their self-interest as taxpayers to want the doors of the First Amendment to remain open for the purpose of rehabilitating inmates."

More prominent prison ministries, such as Chuck Colson's InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI), have proven to help inmates reform their lives and avoid repeat incarcerations upon release. An IFI program near Houston, Texas, has reduced recidivism from 22 percent to 8 percent.

JCPM has no statistics documenting its success but receives thousands of letters from prisoners helped by its materials. John calls his daily trip to the ministry's post office box "one of the highlights of my life." Now, that highlight is no longer soured with bundles of Bible study workbooks marked "return to sender."

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