Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Florida's Faith-Based Programs Under Watchful Eyes

by David M. Reutter

With budget cuts eliminating its substance abuse programs and most educational programs in its prisons, the State of Florida is turning to religious groups to rehabilitate its prisoners. Since 1995, Florida's prison population has exploded from 62,000 prisoners to its current population of 80,000 which nets the Florida Department of Corrections (F.D.O.C.) a $1.7 billion annual budget. Over that same period, FDOC's substance abuse programs have been eliminated despite the fact that at least 80% of all Florida prisoners have substance addictions. Moreover, despite the fact prisoners have a median educational grade of 6.5, basic education and vocational programs have been cut as FDOC adjusts to representing 8.0% of the states budget compared with 8.6% in 1997-98. That has resulted in money flowing from religious groups to the state.

At a December 12, 2003, White-House sponsored news conference in Tampa, which was organized to highlight President Bush's attempts to give religious organizations a greater role in solving social problems, Florida Governor Jeb Bush announced the FDOC would house 800 prisoners at Lawtey Correctional Institution (L.C.I.) that volunteered for the faith-based program.

To be eligible for the program, prisoners must be within three years of completing their sentences and have had a clean prison record for the previous 12 months, said FDOC spokesman, Sterling Ivey.

I believe that when people commit violent acts, it is appropriate to enforce laws and that people should be punished for their actions," Governor Bush said. But I also believe that lives can be changed for those individuals who are motivated to change their lives, programs like this can make a tremendous difference and create a pathway out of the criminal justice system.

Space at the program is first-come, first-served. Once accepted into the program, prisoners receive religion-based classes in everything from parenting and character building to job training. Volunteers from religious groups also will help prisoners find work after their release.

On Christmas Day 2003, Governor Bush and 800 prisoners from 26 faiths attended a dedication ceremony at LCJ. More than 90 percent of those who express a religious preference are Christians, 5 percent are Muslims, and less than 1 percent are Jews.

The community volunteers are in principle, to be from all faiths. In practice, most volunteers who help out are Christian fundamentalists.

Those volunteers and the groups that support them have nominally invested financially to reach the prisoners. Because of the State's financial squeeze, LCI Warden, Dwight J. White said each church group wishing to sponsor a dormitory was required to invest at least $10,000 in equipment, including ceiling fans and musical instruments.

These groups are almost entirely from one tradition: Southern Baptists and other Protestant evangelicals who read the Bible as the literal word of God, believe in creationism, and hold that Jesus is the only way to Salvation. White said the prison has had difficulty attracting clergy from other faiths.

Florida is known as a bread-and-water state among prison experts. That principle holds prisoners should live no better inside than the state's poorest residents do on the outside. Hence, Florida does not install air conditioning, has banned state spending on recreational equipment, and has cut daily operating expenses from $40 to $35 per prisoner since 1999.

Critics of the faith-based program are closely watching. That has caused the FDOC to act. Prior to creating the program at LCI, FDOC instituted 10 faith-based dorms, including the Horizon program at Tomoka Correctional Institution (TCI).

Horizon has largely been supported by Christ-to-Inmates, which was created by TCI Chaplain Perry Davis. Davis is a former FDOC prisoner who accepted Jesus Christ as Lord while imprisoned. At a sermon in the summer of 2004, David told prisoners that pressure was coming down to take Jesus from the Horizon program, and if that happened he would disassociate himself from Horizon.

Shortly thereafter, the Horizon program curriculum changed. TCI prisoner Michael Sanders, who is a practicing Jew, was relieved. Sanders reported that he was required to read Christian books as part of the Horizon program. Fellow prisoners pushed to have their Christian faith recognized by Sanders, who reported that other prisoners placed a cross and a Jesus saves" mural in the community prayer booth after he began using it regularly. Davis, meanwhile, has backed away from full support of Horizon after the FDOC ordered the curriculum changes. Sanders and other prisoners report a much more faith-based, rather than Christian-based, program is emerging.

At LCI, three Muslim prisoners who chose to skip a community night sponsored by Beaches Chapel Church in the prison gym slipped into a utility room that contained a sink, mop and pail. While their Christian brothers prayed, sang, and gave testimonials to their god in the gym, the three Muslim prisoners sat at a chipped formica table with two Korans and an Arabic-language workbook.

Burl Dees, 36, is less than impressed with his experience of the Lawtey program. He had a long list of grievances. The prison had only been visited by a Muslim cleric once in 12 months; each morning, all prisoners were encouraged to join Christian devotions." Little instruction is provided in other faiths. While the utility room provided seedy accommodations, Dees and his Muslim fellows were glad to have it, as they were told that participation in community night was mandatory.

In April 2004, FDOC expanded its faith-based program to create one for 300 female prisoners at the Hillsborough Correctional Institution. Critics threatened legal action. It's incredibly irresponsible to open a second facility when so many constitutional and practical questions remain about the first facility," said Barry Lynn, Executive Director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Critics fear, nonetheless, that FDOC's faith-based programs create privileges for those enrolled and may lead prisoners to believe a parole board may be more sympathetic to bible-believing prisoners than they might be to non-believers who have not participated in a faith-based program. This may coerce some prisoners to fake conversions to receive systematic advantages while those who remain true to their unpopular faith, or proudly profess no faith, may receive harsher treatment by the prison system. This has long been the reality of American prisons which were founded on a religious basis in the 1700s.
Governor Bush prefers to focus on Florida recidivist rates as justification for the program. Wouldn't it be nice if we could figure out a way to lower that 38 percent closer to zero percent, for your family and your community?" asked Bush when announcing the program.
Florida has systematically over the last decade made prison time nasty time," said Todd R. Clear, professor of community justice and corrections at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. But then they say private individuals can set up other types of facilities with amenities that make them much more comfortable places to do time, and all you have to do is give your life to Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. That doesn't feel to me like it's a constitutional arrangement.
To date, no lawsuits have been filed against FDOC's faith-based programs. The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida is waiting for the results of a test case challenging Florida's voucher program that gives students tax payer money to attend religious schools.
With no future plans by the Florida Legislature to increase funding educational and substance abuse programs in Florida prisons, prisoners can expect to see an expansion of the faith-based program. The critics say they will be watching, and foreigners have taken notice too because the LCI program was reported by Al-Jazeera.
As noted in the April 2004 issue of PLN, Jails for Jesus, this is a long standing pattern of eliminating what modest rehabilitation programs exist for prisoners that are provided by the state and then either paying or allowing private, religious groups (who are almost uniformly Christian fundamentalists) to provide similar services with the caveat that the prisoners must either claim a religious conversion or be willing to undergo religious indoctrination to receive the services. The programs claim to be inclusive of all religious faiths even though in practice they are not. However, this ignores the prisoners who are atheists or agnostics and profess no religious belief at all. It amounts to little more than another guise to funnel tax dollars to conservative religious groups favored by legislators and politicians.

Sources: Washington Post;; Tallahassee Democrat; Sun Senteniel; Christian Science Monitor; Washington Times; Aljazeera;;

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login