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Federal Judge Strikes Down Iowa Prison's Faith-Based Rehabilitation Program

A federal judge in Iowa has ruled that the state's partial funding of a Christian rehabilitation program is unconstitutional. In a 140-page opinion issued on June 2, 2006, U.S. District Judge Robert W. Pratt ordered the Iowa Department of Corrections (IDOC) to disband the program within 60 days and directed the InnerChange Freedom Initiative--a division of Prison Fellowship Ministries--to repay the $1.5 million it has received in state funding since 1999. Both orders were stayed, however, pending the outcome of an expected appeal to the 8th Circuit.

In his ruling Judge Pratt concluded that the InnerChange program at Iowa's Newton Correctional Facility violated the First Amendment's prohibition against government-established religion because it was state funded, overwhelmingly sectarian, and aimed at religious conversion. The overtly religious atmosphere of the InnerChange program is not simply an overlay or secondary effect of the program--it is the program, Pratt wrote. Pratt also concluded the program was inherently intolerant of other faiths, despite claims that all religions were welcome to participate. Though a prisoner could, theoretically, graduate from InnerChange without converting to Christianity, the coercive nature of the program demands obedience to its dogmas and doctrine, the decision said.

The case, brought by Americans United for Separation of Church and State and Iowa prisoners in February 2003, has been seen as a wider challenge to President Bush's faith-based initiative. The Bush plan seeks to funnel more government funding to fundamentalist Christian groups that provide social services, particularly in prison. Bush has also expressed interest in expanding faith-based programs in federal prisons. Attorneys for both sides agree that if Judge Pratt's reasoning is applied nationwide it could be a decisive blow to the faith-based initiative while also invalidating many similar prison programs. I think this is an extraordinarily important lawsuit because it raises so many of the issues involved in so-called faith-based programs at the national and state level all over the country, said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United.


InnerChange is a subsidiary of the Virginia-based Prison Fellowship Ministries, a non-profit organization founded by Watergate figure Chuck Colson. In addition to Iowa, InnerChange operates values-based rehabilitation programs in Texas, Minnesota, Kansas, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Missouri. The program is designed to transform prisoners into good citizens, reduce recidivism, and prepare prisoners for release from prison. Rather than utilizing scientific and medical theories and treatment based models to advance these goals, however, InnerChange posits that sin, or disobedience to God, is the root of all maladaptive behavior. The only way to overcome this, believers say, is through the transforming power of God by way of his son, Jesus Christ.

In the mid-1990s the Iowa prison system was faced with overcrowding and budget concerns. When prisoners started arriving at the state's newest prison in 1997, the Newton Facility, full treatment programs and classes were not yet in place. Walter Kip Kautzky, then-director of the IDOC and longtime friend of Chuck Colson, was aware of InnerChange and its operation in Texas since 1997. According to Judge Pratt, Kautzky initiated an inquiry into InnerChange despite being aware of significant constitutional issues. Prison officials ostensibly concluded that due to budget constraints, InnerChange--which would receive state funding for only non-secular aspects of its programming--was the only viable choice.

Under the contract, the state would reimburse InnerChange for non-sectarian programming via the prisoner telephone fund (money kickbacked to the prison system from commissions charged to people who accept collect calls at high rates from Iowa prisoners) and the tobacco fund. The telephone fund consists of money paid by prisoners and their families into individual accounts for phone privileges. By statute profits from the funds are to be used for the benefit of inmates. Tobacco funds were derived from settlements with Tobacco companies that most states received. In total, from September 1999--the first year of the contract--through June 30, 2005, the IDOC made direct payments of $1,529,182.70 to InnerChange; $843,150 came from the prisoner Telephone Fund, and $686,032.70 from the Tobacco Fund. Another $310,000 was appropriated from the tobacco fund for InnerChange programming in fiscal year July 1, 2005 through June 30, 2006. These payments, estimated Norman Cox, the National Director of InnerChange, constituted 35-40% of the ministry's operating costs in Iowa. By contrast, state funding for InnerChange in Kansas is 27%, and 22% in Minnesota. The InnerChange program in Texas is funded entirely through private donations.

Proponents of InnerChange contend it serves a compelling government interest by reducing recidivism rates. According to Prison Fellowship, since 1999 InnerChange graduates had recidivism rates of 6% after one year and 10-12% after two years, compared to the state's average of 33-50%. These numbers, however, were unsubstantiated. Judge Pratt noted in his opinion that the Defendants offered no definitive study about the actual effects the InnerChange program has on recidivism rates. About 220 prisoners participate in the Iowa program at any one time. [Editor's Note: Studies have been conducted showing the lower recidivism claims made by InnerChange are exaggerated and anecdotal, at best.]

Likewise, advocates of the 18-24 month program argue that although InnerChange is based on Christian values--specifically Evangelical Christianity--it does not discriminate against those of other faiths. Under the InnerChange program, Every prisoner still has constitutional freedom when it comes to his faith, said Mark Earley, President of Prison Fellowship. At trial, however, several prisoners of different faiths, including Sunni Muslims, Jews, and those belonging to the Nation of Islam and the Reorganized Latter Day Saints, testified that their religion precluded them from participating fully in the Christian aspects of the InnerChange program--a requirement for successful completion. The Court also found that non-religious persons were characterized by InnerChange staff as unsaved, lost, pagan, those who served the flesh, of Satan, sinful, and of darkness.
Native Americans were also discriminated against. One Native American prisoner was told while in the InnerChange program that the sweat lodge ceremonies he participated in were basically a form of witchcraft, against the Bible, sorcery, and worship of false idols. Consequently, Pratt concluded that the InnerChange program effectively precludes non-Evangelical Christian inmates from participating. And of course atheist and agnostic prisoners, who profess no believe in the supernatural, are effectively excluded completely.

The Ruling

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof .... In determining whether the collaboration between the state of Iowa and InnerChange violated this clause, Judge Pratt relied on the 3-part test delineated in Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971). Under the Lemon test, government practice is permissible for purposes of Establishment Clause analysis only if (1) it has a secular purpose; (2) its principal or primary effect neither advances nor inhibits religion; and (3) it does not foster an excessive entanglement with religion. As to the first element, the Court held that although several high-ranking prison officials and legislators favored InnerChange because of their own personal religious beliefs, the promotion of religions did not appear to be the primary concern of those state officials in passing legislation authorizing the funding. Therefore, the purpose was secular.

Regarding the second element, however, the Court found that the program's primary effect was to advance religion. This conclusion was based on two factors: First that the program was pervasively sectarian in nature, and second, that separation of InnerChange's secular and non-secular aspects was impossible.

As to the sectarian aspect, the Court first noted that, for all intents and purposes, InnerChange and Prison Fellowship were state actors. As such, they were burdened with the same responsibilities of any state employee: to respect the civil rights of all persons, including the First Amendment's prohibition on indoctrinating others in their form of religion. This they did not do. InnerChange's daily activities, its required religious qualifications for employees, and the fact that it was chosen by the state, in part, because its religious nature was viewed as a cure for the ills of recidivism, can only lead to the conclusion that its non-sectarian aspects are substantially subsumed within its religious nature, Pratt wrote.

The Court further concluded that the religious and non-religious aspects of the program were inseparable. Every aspect of InnerChange is designed to one end: the spiritual transformation of the prisoners. Even traditional state rehabilitation classes--including substance abuse treatment, anger management, victim awareness, and parenting classes--as operated by InnerChange, are designed to indoctrinate prisoners into the Christian faith.

What's more, InnerChange's billing procedures could not assure that the state paid for only non-secular expenses. No definition of what constitutes a secular or non-secular expense existed, and even if such a definition did exist, there is no state monitoring to ensure compliance. For instance, with regard to the salaries of employees whose duties included both secular and non-secular activities, No hour by hour calculation ever occurred, "it was more of a general understanding of how the time would be spent," one InnerChange official testified. Evidence also showed that all phone bills, computer costs, office supplies, blank videotapes, and other miscellaneous items were billed to the state as secular expenses, as were religious key chains and bookmarks presented as gifts to graduates and volunteers. In short, the Court concluded, there is no way to guarantee that public funds are used only for secular portions of the InnerChange program.

The program also impermissibly advanced religion because (a) the program was not administered in a neutral fashion, and (b) Iowa prisoners--the indirect recipients of the state funding--had no genuine choice among religious and non-religious programming. The Court based its decision on several factors. For one, evidence presented at trial showed that InnerChange provided incentives to join the program, such as better living conditions and the opportunity to complete classes required for parole earlier than would otherwise be possible. Moreover, Iowa's limited programming provided prisoners with no other opportunities to obtain the same level of services. And as noted above, though all faiths were ostensibly welcome in the InnerChange program, this was true in form only.

Finally, the Court concluded that the weight of the evidence left no room for doubt that the state was excessively entangled with religion through the InnerChange program. ... For all practical purposes, the state has literally established an Evangelical Christian congregation within the walls of one its [sic] 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. ... The state, through its direct funding of InnerChange, hopes to cure recidivism through state-sponsored prayer and devotion. While such spiritual and emotional "rewiring" may be possible in the life of an individual and lower the risk of committing other crimes, it cannot be permissible to force taxpayers to fund such an enterprise under the Establishment Clause.

Based on the above reasoning, Judge Pratt permanently enjoined the operation of InnerChange in any Iowa prison and ordered the IDOC to disband the InnerChange program at the Newton prison within 60 days. Pratt also ordered InnerChange to reimburse the state for payments made since the contract's inception, in 1999. The amount--no less than $1,529,182.70--is to be paid pro rata, with at least $843,150 going to the individual Telephone Fund accounts from which it was taken, and at least $686,032.70 going to the Tobacco Trust. Noting the virtual certainty of an appeal to the 8th Circuit, Pratt suspended his order pending the outcome. He did, however, require InnerChange and Prison Fellowship to post a supersedes bond for $1,529,182.70. See: Americans United for Separation of Church and State v. Prison Fellowship Ministries, USDC SD IA, Case No. 4:03-cv-90074. The ruling is available on PLNs website at

[Editor's Note: The rise of the faith based prison program must be seen in the context of the government removing secular programs such as drug and sex offender treatment, education classes, etc., then substituting religious programs as the only alternatives. In many cases atheist, agnostic and non Christian prisoners are effectively coerced into attending these programs because, whether InnerChange affects recidivism rates is questionable, it does appear to affect parole rates and prisoners who attend are more likely to be paroled than those who do not.]

Additional sources: Washington Post,,, Des Moines Register, Seattle-Post Intelligencer

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