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Captive Audience: Ohio Wants to Bring Prisoners to Jesus, the Law Be Damned

On August 12, 2003, the Marion Correctional Institution played host to a most unlikely revival. The Promise Keepers, the international men's Christian ministry, put on a four-hour service for about 1,000 men, more than half the prison's population.

Joe White, a former Texas A&M assistant football coach, offered a talk tailor-made for his audience. "The thief on the cross, the man on death row, was the first to be promised he'd be with Christ in paradise," White preached. "Jesus took your debt-- your sin -- and nailed it on the cross and said, `Paid in full; it is finished!'"

That message of hope carried far beyond the prison's walls. Thanks to the miracle of the internet, an estimated 10,000 men in 70 prisons across America and in Canada, England, and Ireland tuned in for the revival, billed by Promise Keepers as the first of its kind. One of those prisons was the Richland Correctional Institution in Mansfield, Ohio.

But at Richland, the Promise Keepers' reception was far less rapturous. At about 1:35 p.m., when prisoners ordinarily file out to the yard for recreation, those who lived in the Merit Unit -- reserved for well-behaved convicts-- were ordered back to their bunks for an emergency head count. Then the unit sergeant made an announcement. "Listen up, guys!" the sergeant said, according to a prisoner's grievance. "The following order comes directly from the warden: There is a program playing on Channel 14 [the institution's informational channel] about the Promise Keepers. You all are being given a direct order to sit on your bunks, turn your TVs to channel 14, and watch this program until it is over with!"

Several prisoners questioned this, contending that it violated their right to worship as they please. Loudest among them was Richard Beaver, a bespectacled, intelligent-looking man serving 8 to 15 years for felonious assault. "I stood up and said, `Hold on, you can't do that!'" Beaver says. "That's a Christian men's organization, and some of us don't advocate that."

Several higher-ranking Richland authorities intervened. "They said that if we refused to watch [the program], our personal televisions would be confiscated as contraband, that we would be thrown in the hole 'segregation' and that we would be written up for disobeying a direct order," Beaver says. He continued to protest and was put in segregation for several hours, "until the program was completely over with.

"I make my own choices with regard to religious beliefs, and I am not going to be subjected to that," Beaver says of the Promise Keepers program. "I'm not going to be forced to participate in something I don't believe in."

What happened to Beaver isn't the first time the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) has pushed religion on prisoners. ODRC employees actively participated in raising funds for the Promise Keepers' event. The department spent thousands of taxpayer dollars to purchase equipment enabling the rally to be viewed in prisons across the state. A Cleveland women's prison spent thousands more to broadcast a Christian evangelist's message. And the ODRC admits that, at Marion, you have to be Christian, Jewish, or Muslim to get into a dormitory with nicer accommodations.

All this would seem to violate the First Amendment, which forbids government to favor one religion over another or promote religion at all. But as a Scene investigation reveals, the department seems hellbent on converting prisoners to Christianity -- whether it's legal or not.

Complaints from Beaver and other prisoners fueled advocacy groups such as Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, which had warned the ODRC against sponsoring the Promise Keepers event long before it took place. And the debacle at Richland detracted from the revival's success at Marion, which had become a jewel in the ODRC's crown largely because of the innovative religious programming instituted by its warden, Christine Money.

The highly touted rally was becoming something of an embarrassment.

Someone's head would have to go on the chopping block. Three weeks after the rally, it became clear whose. ODRC Director Reginald Wilkinson met with Richland Warden Norman Rose to discuss problems with Rose's management. Wilkinson cited four areas of concern: among them, the issue of prisoners making homemade wine within the prison. But from the meeting's timing, it seemed clear which of the four points topped Wilkinson's list: Rose's forcing prisoners to watch the rally.

Saying that he could no longer trust Rose's judgment, Wilkinson busted him down to deputy warden and transferred him to the Northeast Pre-Release Center, a women's prison in downtown Cleveland, where Rose had previously served as acting warden. Although Rose would keep roughly the same salary, he would lose much of his authority. After 19 years in corrections, Rose's career within the ODRC was effectively over.

But if the ODRC needed a scapegoat for its Christianity controversy, it picked a most unlikely fall guy. Rose, as it turns out, is an avowed atheist.

He is a short, compact man, the kind often likened to a spark plug. His demeanor bears out the analogy. Ask him a question, and he will answer it thoroughly and passionately and will not be diverted until he finishes making his point.

But Rose is not inclined to discuss spirituality. Only after several phone conversations and e-mails did he disclose that he has been an atheist for 30 years. "I wanted to know what the true God was, so I spent many hours studying religion, only to conclude that it was all bullshit," he says.

Rose says his order to prisoners was based on a misunderstanding: "I thought Promise Keepers was about family values, you know, being faithful to your wife, taking care of your kids, all those things."

Promise Keepers does espouse those values, but in a strictly biblical context. Promise Keepers preaches that men should take back their traditional role as head of the family.

Rose admits that he should have paid more attention to the ODRC's memos about the webcast, but he doesn't understand why the department permitted the rally in the first place.

"I don't think that, as a state employee, I should have to decide if a program touted by the Department of Corrections is religious or not," Rose told a newspaper shortly after he was demoted. "Promise Keepers is an offensive program and an offensive religious ideology, and the state shouldn't be spending its resources to support it."

For the ODRC to quietly push religion but discipline him for being less covert smacks of hypocrisy, Rose says. "They're holding me accountable for accidentally doing what they do on a regular basis."

Before the rally became controversial, ODRC officials were eager to promote it to the press. Now they have grown strangely tight-lipped. Director Reginald Wilkinson, Religious Service Administrator Gary Sims, and Marion Correctional Institution Warden Christine Money all rejected interview requests. But public records tell the story.

Promise Keepers began making inroads at Marion, and the ODRC, long before the rally. In 2001, about 250 Marion prisoners watched a live webcast of a Promise Keepers conference held in Columbus. Afterward, prisoners began meeting for weekly Bible-study meetings and monthly "mini-rallies."

In July 2002, more than 400 Marion prisoners watched a live broadcast of a Promise Keepers event at the Gund Arena on the prison's closed-circuit television system. The event was also broadcast to the Mansfield and Lorain prisons.

That Promise Keepers would seek out prisoners makes sense. The organization has seen attendance at rallies flag in recent years. Prisoners represent a huge pool of potential converts, says Ted Padwe, the Promise Keepers official who helped organize the Marion rally. "If you're a men's ministry, and then you realize that something like 93 percent of the people who are incarcerated around the world are men . . . that pretty much has to be on your radar screen."

That Marion would be the group's gateway to the ODRC's 40,000-plus male prisoners also makes sense. Since the 1996 arrival of Warden Christine Money, a prim, middle-aged woman, who walks through the prison with a gold cross around her neck, Marion has become increasingly religious. The prison has launched or bolstered no fewer than eight religious programs. Among them is the "Silent Choir", 70 prisoners who use sign language to "sing" religious music, which Money herself leads.

Money's initiatives have brought Marion no small acclaim. Prison officials credit her programs with reducing prisoner grievances from 100 a month to a little more than a dozen, though their evidence is mostly anecdotal. The prison's Horizon Interfaith Dormitory, which houses 48 Christian, Jewish and Muslim men, recently won an award from the American Correctional Association. [Editor's Note: Which Wilkinson is a former President of.]

Yet some prisoners say the religious programs aren't exactly voluntary. William Hamann Jr., who pleaded guilty in 1991 to stealing more than $2 million from estates and trusts he oversaw, and who was recently released from Marion, says that "there was enormous and unrelenting pressure from staff and inmates alike to `jump on the bandwagon.'" Hamann says it was impossible to succeed at the prison without joining one of the religious programs. (An e-mail from Hamann accompanies this story online at

Internal e-mails indicate that Money tried to get funding for the Promise Keepers' rally through the ODRC. "I have the opportunity to meet with the Deputy Director responsible for the budget tonight," Money wrote to Promise Keepers' organizer Padwe on February 11. "I want to talk with him regarding funding our project. Keep us in prayer."

But those efforts hit a snag. "We just found out on Monday, April 7, 2003, that due to a court ruling, the fund that we were planning to utilize for the Redeem the Time conference is not available, since it involves federal funding," Money wrote in another e-mail to Padwe.

To get around the ban on using government funds, Money began to pursue private sponsorships with "faith partners" , religious groups that had a relationship with the prison. She concluded the e-mail on a hopeful note: "We know that this must be part of God's plan and will continue to work as He guides us."

Pursuing private funding would allow the ODRC to claim that no taxpayer money was used. But that's disingenuous at best, says Ray Vasvari, who until recently was the Ohio ACLU's legal director. "They're not using federal grant money, but what they're using is staff time and state resources to pursue [private] grant money."

Money's intimate involvement in fund-raising for the Promise Keepers rally is made abundantly clear in her e-mails to Padwe. On April 24, she writes, "We are having some success at fund-raising. We serve an awesome God!" And on July 30, Padwe writes to Money, "Will you be sending the next check . . . soon? I'd like to deposit it when possible." Money responds: "Yes."

In response to Scene's inquiries about this check, Money wrote, "Central Ohio churches and various individuals contributed private funds to support this program. The check mentioned in my e-mail was sent from a nonprofit organization to Promise Keepers. No state funds were sent to the Promise Keepers."

What Money doesn't mention is that she acted as a "go-between" for the nonprofit and the Promise Keepers, as even ODRC spokeswoman JoEllen Culp admits. But Culp refuses to identify the nonprofit, saying, "I don't believe that they would want their name released." Ultimately, the nonprofit raised about $45,000 in donations. Promise Keepers footed the rest for the $100,000 event.

And it's not entirely true that no state funds were spent. The state spent at least $6,943 in taxpayer money on computer equipment at 16 different prisons to enable prisoners to view the rally. Culp argues that the equipment is multiuse and might have been purchased anyway: "The event may have expedited the purchases so that institutions were able to view Promise Keepers, along with future programming opportunities."

Yet when asked to identify other events that had used or were scheduled to use the equipment, Culp could name none.

There was also a "planning workshop" for the Promise Keepers meeting held at Marion on July 10. It was attended by at least 16 ODRC employees from across the state. At first, Culp denied that the meeting ever happened. When confronted with department e-mail refuting this claim, she stuck to her guns, saying that the e-mail was wrong. But she called back later to "apologize for the miscommunication and confusion."

Yet Culp cannot or will not reveal how much state money was spent on travel and other expenses for the workshop, saying it's "something that's not centrally recorded."

As Money was trying to raise funds for the Promise Keepers rally, other high-ranking officials were doing their best to promote it. On February 28, 2003, Religious Service Administrator Gary Sims sent a letter to prison chaplains, advising them how to advertise the event. The letter, much of it copied from the Promise Keepers' website, suggests hyping the rally six weeks in advance, through fliers and Promise Keepers videos. "MCI [Marion] and Promise Keepers has a vision of Promise Keepers being used throughout the country in prisons," he writes.

In a July 9 letter, Sims wrote that ODRC was "sponsoring" the rally. The word raised a red flag among groups that monitor church-state issues. Rob Boston, of the Washington, D.C. based Americans United, warned Director Wilkinson in a letter that Promise Keepers describes itself as "a Christ-centered organization" and that "the sponsorship of this type of sectarian event by a government is unconstitutional."

Marc Stern, of the American Jewish Congress, was even more blunt in his letter to Wilkinson: "We have never, despite a long familiarity with the prisons of this country, heard of a similar event. This suggests that the religious message of the Promise Keepers is receiving preferential treatment in violation of the most fundamental meaning of the [First Amendment]."

In response, ODRC's chief counsel, T. Austin Stout, sent chaplains a carefully worded "clarification" of Norman Sims's July 9 memo: "While ODRC is allowing access to MCI for this event, ODRC is in no way endorsing the particular religious viewpoint expressed by this organization."

But Stout's clarification ignored something: Sims's claim that the ODRC was "sponsoring" the event was cribbed from a letter written one month earlier by ODRC Director Reginald Wilkinson. "I am pleased to announce a historic event that the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction is sponsoring," Wilkinson wrote. He even gave the Promise Keepers the go-ahead to use his words on the group's website.

Even after the warnings about constitutional issues, the ODRC continued to endorse the Promise Keepers and their message. Money contributed a gushing quote to a Promise Keepers press release touting the Marion rally's success: "The introduction of Promise Keepers conferences and follow-up programs have challenged men to practice their faith by making commitments to their families, to their churches, to their communities, and most importantly to God," Money said.

Vasvari sees it another way: "It amounts to allowing a government official to advance her religious beliefs on a captive audience, with government money."

If the Promise Keepers rally were unique in its intermingling of church and state, the ODRC could perhaps be forgiven for a well-intentioned mistake. But it's not unique. In fact, the rally was just the most high-profile example of the ODRC's attempts to push religion on prisoners.

On July 9, 2003, the Northeast Pre-Release Center in Cleveland spent $4,070 to rent equipment to screen a program by T.D. Jakes Ministries. Bishop Thomas D. Jakes is a pastor of one of the nation's fastest-growing Christian megachurches and has a national weekly television show on the Trinity Broadcasting Network.

ODRC argues that the $4,070 came from an "industrial and entertainment" (I&E) account, a fund used to purchase outside entertainment for prisoners. The fund is fed by money spent at the prison commissary and at vending machines in visiting areas, and from interest accrued on prisoner bank accounts maintained by the prison. But the money is still state-controlled.

According to ODRC policy, each prison can spend up to $1,000 in I&E money for a performance. The policy also states that prisons should "be sensitive to cultural diversity" in scheduling outside entertainment.

ODRC spokeswoman Culp says prison authorities are allowed to exceed the limit if they obtain written permission, which was done in this case. She argues that the expenditure was in line with the goal of cultural diversity, because it gave prisoners access to a religious program that, she said, even non-Christians might appreciate.

Ironically, T.D. Jakes's message never reached the prisoners, due to technical difficulties with the broadcast. So the $4,070 was squandered.

Even the Horizon Interfaith Dormitory, the much-lauded religious-housing unit at Marion, may violate Constitutional safeguards. One guard, who asked not to be named, says a well-respected Wiccan prisoner wanted to get into the dorm, but was turned down because he was not Christian, Muslim, or Jewish.

Says Culp: "The Horizon Dorm was designed specifically for Jewish, Christian, and Muslim inmates."

Vasvari says that's a distinction the state isn't allowed to make: "The state ought to be blind to these sorts of considerations. You don't get a special pass because you're one of the Abrahamic faiths."

ODRC officials argue that prisoners exposed to religious programs are less likely to commit crimes when they are released, but the evidence is much less conclusive. A recent study of a Texas religious program seemed to suggest that it cut recidivism, but in an essay titled "Faith-Based Fudging," UCLA professor Mark Kleiman pointed out that the study was scientifically unsound. The study focused only on the 75 prisoners who completed the program, conveniently ignoring the 102 prisoners who participated but didn't finish. The omission ensured that the sample would include only those most dedicated to leading productive, law-abiding lives.

Rob Boston, of Americans United, says, "There hasn't been one objective study that shows these religious programs can lead prisoners to turn their lives around. It takes more than a giant Bible study to get somebody behind bars not to commit a crime again on the outside."

Tim Butz, of the Nebraska ACLU, which is waging a legal battle over his state's favoring of certain religious groups, says recidivism goes beyond whether someone finds God in prison. "It really has to do with the environment they go out to, once they're outside of prison, and whether they have a support system to lead a traditional life," he says. "Are they able to get jobs? Are they able to put food on their table? Jobs, housing, educational opportunities, those are the keys to success."

Yet the ODRC clearly intends that religion should play a greater role. Wilkinson said as much, when a newspaper asked him about spiritual programs at Marion. "It's wonderful," he said. "I'd have that everywhere I could."

In fact, the ODRC is already taking steps to do just that.

In February 2001, it launched an ambitious restructuring of its reentry program, dismantling its existing apparatus for acclimating prisoners to society in favor of a system with more measurable results. Religion, as it turns out, will play a major role.

Among other things, the plan calls for developing "Individual Faith Treatment Plans" to help link offenders to religious groups that can help reacquaint them with society, establishing a "Faith-Based Advisory Council" and sponsoring an annual conference to give religious groups more involvement in the reentry process, and revising departmental policy to make it easier for faith-based groups to get involved with prisoners.

The program could be "perfectly acceptable and laudable," says Vasvari. But if prisoners are encouraged to join specific faiths, it could be a problem. "Here, pardon the pun, the devil is in the details."

Given the ODRC's handling of the Promise Keepers, greater scrutiny may be warranted, and it's likely to come in the wake of the rally.

Norman Rose, the warden disciplined for forcing prisoners to watch the rally, is appealing his demotion to the State Personnel Board of Review. Rose maintains that ODRC Director Wilkinson disciplined him without due process, in an attempt to deflect blame from himself.

Stern, of the American Jewish Congress, was somewhat mollified by the ODRC's "clarification" letter, but is on the warpath again after receiving letters from Richland prisoners complaining that they were forced to watch the rally. "Either somebody's lying, or the assurances to me that no one would be coerced were never communicated to line officials, which is quite troublesome," he says.

Beaver, the prisoner put into segregation for refusing to watch the Promise Keepers, has filed a grievance. If that doesn't remedy the situation, the American Jewish Congress might file a lawsuit on his behalf, Stern says. Ultimately, a judge could award Beaver monetary damages and enter an injunction against the ODRC to prevent this from happening again in the future.

"If I were the department, I would have apologized a long time ago," Stern says. "Because it's right, and because it would make a lawsuit more unlikely."

And after reviewing Scene's research, Vasvari is calling for an inquiry into the ODRC. "The documents you've shown me here today suggest the need for a serious investigation into what seems like an enthusiastic endorsement by certain state officials of an unquestionably evangelical event."

This article appeared originally in The Cleveland Scene. Reprinted with permission.

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