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10 December 2006

Your Tax Dollars At Work

If you're sent to prison you might want to find Jesus (in the Christianist sense) pronto:

But the only way an inmate could qualify for this kinder mutation of prison life was to enter an intensely religious rehabilitation program and satisfy the evangelical Christians running it that he was making acceptable spiritual progress. The program — which grew from a project started in 1997 at a Texas prison with the support of George W. Bush, who was governor at the time — says on its Web site that it seeks “to ‘cure’ prisoners by identifying sin as the root of their problems” and showing inmates “how God can heal them permanently, if they turn from their sinful past.”

One Roman Catholic inmate, Michael A. Bauer, left the program after a year, mostly because he felt the program staff and volunteers were hostile toward his faith.

Yes, it turns out that you might get better treatment in prison if you are of the "right" religion. This isn't a new story but the NYT, in a long article, does a good job of laying out the issue.

Nevertheless, the programs are proliferating. For example, the Corrections Corporation of America, the nation’s largest prison management company, with 65 facilities and 71,000 inmates under its control, is substantially expanding its religion-based curriculum and now has 22 institutions offering residential programs similar to the one in Iowa. And the federal Bureau of Prisons, which runs at least five multifaith programs at its facilities, is preparing to seek bids for a single-faith prison program as well.

Government agencies have been repeatedly cited by judges and government auditors for not doing enough to guard against taxpayer-financed evangelism. But some constitutional lawyers say new federal rules may bar the government from imposing any special requirements for how faith-based programs are audited.

And, typically, the only penalty imposed when constitutional violations are detected is the cancellation of future financing — with no requirement that money improperly used for religious purposes be repaid.

And thus another problem: The privatization of prisons. Once prisons are sold off to a corporation the public's "right to know" ceases. Fraud and abuse are rife. And CCA, cited above, is one of the worst offenders.

Get them while they're young:

Those constitutional problems sharpen when young people are the intended beneficiaries of these transformational ministries. In recent years, several judges have concluded that children and teenagers, like prisoners, have too few options and too little power to make the voluntary choices the Supreme Court requires when public money flows to programs involving religious instruction or indoctrination.

That was the conclusion last year of a federal judge in Michigan, in a case filed by Teen Ranch, a nonprofit Christian facility that provides residential care for troubled or abused children ages 11 to 17.

[...]

Although youngsters in state custody could not choose where to be placed, they could refuse to go to the ranch if they objected to its religious character. As a result, the ranch’s lawyers argued, the state money was constitutionally permissible.

The state contended that the children in its care were “too young, vulnerable and traumatized” to make genuine choices. The ranch disputed that and added that the children had case workers and other adults to guide them. Judge Bell rejected Teen Ranch’s arguments. “Regardless of whether state wards are particularly vulnerable, they are children,” he wrote.

But not just children:

In ruling on that case, Judge Pratt noted that the born-again Christian staff was the sole judge of an inmate’s spiritual transformation. If an inmate did not join in the religious activities that were part of his “treatment,” the staff could write up disciplinary reports, generating demerits the inmate’s parole board might see. Or they could expel the inmate.

And while the program was supposedly open to all, in practice its content was “a substantial disincentive” for inmates of other faiths to join, the judge noted. Although the ministry itself does not condone hostility toward Catholics, Roman Catholic inmates heard their faith criticized by staff members and volunteers from local evangelical churches, the judge found. And Jews and Muslims in the program would have been required to participate in Christian worship services even if that deeply offended their own religious beliefs.

If this isn't an establishment of religion then nothing is. What's more, if you're an atheist or agnostic you're really screwed:

Not all programs in prisons are so narrowly focused. Florida now has three prisons that offer inmates, who must ask to be housed there, more than two dozen offerings ranging from various Christian denominations to Orthodox Judaism to Scientology. But at Newton, Judge Pratt found, there were few options — and no equivalent programs — without religious indoctrination.

By now, it should come as no suprise that there is virtually no oversight. Oversight would infringe on religious freedoms, don't'cha know:

But no supplemental audits are required under the faith-based initiative — indeed, it would probably violate the Bush administration’s new regulations to do so, said Robert W. Tuttle, a professor of law and religion at George Washington University and co-director of legal research, along with Ira C. Lupu, for the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy, a project of the Rockefeller Institute.

“The rules can be read to prohibit special audit requirements because that would be considered a stigma, which would be discriminatory,” Professor Tuttle said. “But that flies in the face of constitutional logic, because religion is special, and that special quality has to be reflected in program guidelines and audit rules.”

The G.A.O. also says the government cannot easily or accurately track either how much money is flowing to groups or whether they are using the funds in unconstitutional ways.

So there you have it: Religion, specifically a particular strain of Christianity, is receiving preferred treatment, even in prisons. The irony here is that Americans look at foreign lands and become frightened of religious extremism yet can't see the same extremism developing in their own country. Left unchecked, people in this country might start fearing their own neighbors.


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