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Beyond the God Pod

By Silja Ja Talvi

Published: March 9, 2005

"Don't forget that Jesus himself was a prisoner."
--New Mexico Department of Corrections Secretary Joe Williams, at the
American Correctional Conference in Phoenix, Arizona, January 2005.

"Strongly guarded & is the separation between religion and government in
the Constitution of the United States."
--James Madison, author of the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Betty Ramirez is a career correctional officer who actually loves her job.
She believes in the power of rehabilitation and redemption for the women
she is responsible for guarding and protecting. More than anything,
Ramirez believes they deserve a second chance.

Or a third, a fourth or a fifth, as the case may be. New Mexico's
recidivism rate is the nation's third highest and, by some estimates, up
to 85 percent of women who are incarcerated and released within this state
will end up back in prison.

Ramirez, nonetheless, believes in the potential for rehabilitation of even
the most hardened inmates. "Most of these women are sorry for what they
have done," she says, "But have run into bad luck and bad situations."

A petite woman with a powerful presence, Ramirez is one of the few
Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) employees who have been at the
New Mexico Women's Correctional Facility (NMWCF) in Grants, NM from the
very beginning when the facility became the first privately run women's
prison in the nation in 1989. The move signaled what later became a full-
blown trend toward the privatization of incarceration statewide and

In the ensuing 16 years, Ramirez watched the population in this facility
increase dramatically as increasing numbers of non-violent and addicted
offenders were sentenced to longer and longer sentences under more
punitive drug war laws. From 149 state prisoners in early 1989 to nearly
600 women today, the majority of these women have had one or more children
by the time they get locked up. Most come from backgrounds filled with
abuse, neglect, poverty, drug and alcohol addiction, domestic violence and
limited educational and vocational opportunities.

Ramirez greets fellow correctional officers and inmates alike as she walks
in and out of classes, workshops and prison pods. An early stop includes a
visit to two segregation pods where a few dozen women are locked down 23
hours a day in small, dark solitary confinement cells. Ramirez, who used
to work in the segregation pods, acknowledges that segregation "can be
very stressful" for the inmates who do not have contact with the outside
world--let alone other inmates--for months or even years on end.

But there is one area of the prison that stands in particularly sharp
contrast to the bleak desperation of the segregation pods: the God Pod.

Officially this is the Life Principles Community/Crossings Program. It's a
program officials consider the real "success story" within the confines of
NMWCF. As a housing pod, Crossings has been around for four years with the
enthusiastic support of the prison administration and Chaplain Shirley
Compton. More recently, CCA picked Crossings as one of eight sites
nationwide to pioneer a new partnership with a fundamentalist Christian
ministry named the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP).

Although it is not the only religious activity at the prison it is, by
far, the most institutionalized and structured. In many ways, it also is
the most problematic from a First Amendment point of view. It is in this
unit that the blurring of the line between church and state is most
evident, harkening a new turn in corrections toward Christian-based
programming that has begun to truly influence (or, depending on one's
perspective, to infiltrate) the nation's prisons.

Religious programming for prisoners has been around for years. At NMWCF,
volunteers from churches of various denominations come in to lead Catholic
mass, baptisms, Bible studies and other activities, and an Albuquerque-
based ministry named Wings has gained particular preference to conduct its
large-scale, Christian-based family reunification program/pizza party
events inside Grants (and, soon, many other prisons across the state). The
Kairos Prison Ministry, the mission of which is to "bring Christ's love
and forgiveness to all incarcerated individuals" also has a presence.

But an increased emphasis on religion from the federal government has
impacted the scopeand amount of moneyavailable for such programs.

In fact, two adult prisons in the Florida corrections system are now
entirely faith-based, while Florida's Office of Juvenile Justice and
Delinquency Prevention has launched the nation's first Faith and Community
Based Delinquency Treatment Initiative. (Funding from the federal
government has placed such an emphasis on the faith element of juvenile
programming that many previously secular treatment and residential
facilities for youth have made the decision in the past year to center
their programs on "faith" in order to keep receiving money.)

Since its inception in 1998, President Bush's emphasis on his
administration's National Faith-Based Initiative has risen to $1.33
billion, or nearly 10 percent of available funding from five federal
agencies (Education, Labor, Justice, Health and Human Services and
Housing), with marked increases every year. (Fully 25 percent of HUD's
funding in FY 2003, for instance, went to faith-based organizations.)

"Government has got to find ways to empower those whose mission is based
upon love, in order to help those who need to find love in society,"
President Bush said last week, while calling for Congress and state
governors to remove remaining "roadblocks" to funding faith-based

In New Mexico, the National Faith-Based Initiative has not specifically
provided money for the Crossings program, which is funded out of New
Mexico's general fund (through the CCA), as well as through seasonal in-
prison sales of food and other popular prison items to inmates. But the
President's emphasis on the faith needs of people returning to the
community from prison has channeled millions of dollars in the direction
of ex-offender transition programs involving churches and, in doing so,
providing an overt justification for "volunteer" in-prison faith-based

"Voluntary" is a key word with these programs and institutions, and the
White House has gone to great lengths to say these kinds of programs are
not intended to convert people to any particular religion or sect of

But the voluntary nature of these programs has become the looming question
for organizations like Americans United for the Separation of Church and
State, which has filed two lawsuits challenging religious prison programs
in Iowa and Pennsylvania. In the Pennsylvania case, filed in mid-February
2005, both the state chapter of the ACLU and Americans United are
challenging the right of a county jail to use tax dollars to fund a
Christian-centered job-training program. That program is the only
vocational program in the county jail, and hires only Christians to work
within the program. (Federal legislation is pending to allow such programs
to discriminate in hiring based on religious background.)

"You have to be willing to convert to [Christian] fundamentalism, or put
up with attempts to convert you," says Robert Boston, a spokesperson for
Americans United. "These programs have come in and offered something of a
substitute for the real educational and vocational programs that have

According to John Lanz, CCA's national director of Industry and Special
Programs, the Life Principles/Crossings program has benefited greatly from
the recent decision to partner with IBLP because that relationship cements
a "franchise-like approach&which helps maintain the integrity of the
[Crossings] program."

"Inmates are understanding that they don't have to convert from one
religion to another," Lanz adds.

That's a theme echoed by Chaplain Compton, the New Mexico Department of
Corrections and NMWCF Warden Bill Snodgrass. Snodgrass did not make
himself available for an interview either in person or by telephone, but
was quoted last month in the Albuquerque Journal as supporting the program
and saying that inmates who follow the program are 90 to 95 percent less
likely to end up back in prison.

Both CCA's corporate headquarters as well as the NMWCF staff stress,
repeatedly, that everyone is welcome to learn from what the program has to
offer, that everything is on a volunteer basis and that religious
conversion is not a prerequisite or end goal of the program. One inmate in
the program insists: "It's multifaith. Yes, we're Christian, but we would
not turn anyone away."

This insistence is harder to believe once one examines the materials used
in the program and learns who is behind them.

"Have you received Jesus Christ as your personal Savior?," asks one of the
sections of the various IBLP workbooks given to prisoners. "The first
function of faith is to believe in Christ for salvation," reads another
section. "The Holy Spirit then takes up residence in your spirit and
confirms that you are a Christian&Disobeying the promptings of the Holy
Spirit will cause Him to be grieved and will quench His power in your

The text is, despite what CCA's officials say, clearly intended to convert
people to a particularly fundamentalist interpretation of Christianity
that revolves around a man named Bill Gothard.

Bill Gothard, the 71-year-old unmarried real estate mogul at the head of
the Illinois-based IBLP, has been in the business of American evangelism
since 1964. Originally named the Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts, IBLP
officially changed its name in 1990. All totaled, IBLP boasts that at
least 2.5 million people have attended IBLP's seminars and ministries in
the US and many other countries, including Russia, Mongolia, Romania and

Gothard has not only gained success both through his religious education
programs and training centers, but also through a secular instruction
program, Character First, that is in wide use in public schools across the
US but does not publicize its origins.

The IBLP, on the other hand, makes no claims whatsoever of secularism, or
even respect for other world religions or worldviews. Officially
established "for the purpose of introducing people to the Lord Jesus
Christ," IBLP announces that it does so by providing "training on how to
find success by following God's principles found in Scripture."

That is to say Gothard's own interpretation of Scripture, which represents
a very literal, overtly patriarchal and highly authoritarian take on what
Jesus Christ was all about.

To take but one example, Gothard's workbook materials distributed to the
women in the Grants Crossings program includes a breakdown of "basic life
principles" including "Moral Purity," "Yielding Rights" and "Proper

"Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as it is fit in the
Lord," reads one of the biblical selections scattered throughout the IBLP
workbooks. Emphasis is placed on "courting" rather than "dating;" on women
obeying their husbands; preserving marriage at all costs (to the point of
rejecting divorce as a possible resolution to a soured relationship); and
on the need for Christians to respect, obey and submit to church and
government. These institutions and their rulers, as the workbooks explain,
exist because of God's will.

"Must we continue to respect an evil ruler as a minister of God?" reads
one question in a section of an IBLP workbook. "YES" comes the answer from
Gothard's reading of I Samuel 24:10. "When David had an opportunity to
destroy Saul, who was trying to kill him, he said: I will not put forth
mine hand against the Lord: for he is the Lord's anointed."

The partnership with the Chicago-based IBLP was made official one year
ago, but this isn't the first time CCA has partnered with a Christian
evangelical group. Since its first such arrangement with a Christian-based
ministry in 1991, CCA has taken a self-described leadership role in its
mission to bring faith-based programs to prisons. In recent years, CCA has
partnered with groups such as Good News Jail & Prison Ministry, School of
Christ International and Child Evangelism Fellowship, the latter of which
already operates in NMWCF to provide weekly devotional lessons to both
parents in prison and to their children on the outside.

CCA has become so convinced of the power of the IBLP residential program
that the company now plans to institute similar pods in every one of its
owned prisons. (As the nation's biggest private prison corporation, CCA
now represents the fifth biggest prison system in the US, with 65,000
prisoner beds in 64 facilities--38 of which are company-owned.)

Legally, CCA is obligated to provide access to multi-faith services where
they are requested. But in selecting their religious "partners," CCA has
opted exclusively for arrangements with Christian evangelical and
fundamentalist groups. The vast majority of chaplains in CCA prisons are
indeed Christian. "It's difficult to find an imam or a rabbi for these
positions," Lanz says, "although we have a few that come into our
facilities to conduct their services in our programs."

The newest faith-based ventures--above and beyond the expansion of the IBLP
program into all CCA-owned facilities--will likely be a partnership with
Rick Warren, the founding pastor of the Saddleback Church in Lake Forest,
Calif. Saddleback brags that it has baptized more than 9,200 new
believers," and sent over 4,000 of its members on worldwide Christian
missions. Lanz says he plans to work with Warren to bring his Purpose
Driven Life Curriculum to the company's prisons.

Other planned events include weekend-long Christian celebrations with
Champions of Life at selected CCA prisons, as well as the possibility of
bringing in Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship to work on re-entry programs
with its prisoners.

Colson, a Christian conservative who served time for Nixon-era Watergate
offenses, has sprung to the forefront of the revived trend in faith-based
rehabilitation in prisons, having found a strong ally in George W Bush. In
1997, then-Governor Bush allowed Prison Fellowship to run a 24-hour
religious program in the Texas state prison system. Today, the Fellowship
publishes the bimonthly Inside Journal geared toward spreading
Christianity to prisoners, and operates the InnerChange Freedom Initiative
(IFI) for 140 men in a medium-security prison in Kansas, among other

Crowing about the success of the IFI immersion programs, President Bush
has said he would like to bring that program to federal prisons,
referencing a University of Pennsylvania study that received favorable
attention from national news outlets including the Wall Street Journal.
The White House and Christian conservatives were aglow over the study's
findings that InnerChange Freedom Initiative graduates from the Texas
program were two times less likely to be rearrested than a matched
comparison group.

But the data on those successes was distorted, as Mark Kleiman from Slate
Magazine later pointed out in a August 2003 exposé, "Faith-Based Fudging."
In point of fact, when the total number of prisoners in the program was
counted (including those who dropped out of the program, were expelled or
received early parole), IFI participants were actually more likely to be
rearrested and reincarcerated than their non-IFI counterparts.

This correction has been largely ignored by the White House, Colson's
Prison Fellowship and, most certainly, by CCA. No other studies exist in
the US proving the success of religious immersion prison programs. NMWCF
maintains that the Crossings program has, in fact, reduced recidivism

"What is happening is amazing," says Lanz. "These are turning out to be
the cleanest and best pods in our facilities."

Known as the "God pod" by some of the prisoners at Grants, the Life
Principles Community/Crossings unit is clean, orderly and decorated with
handmade declarations of Christian love and obeisance. Scripture-based
books and movies pack the shelves of a small library in the pod; prisoner
cubicles are neat and colorful; and an invitingly intimate living room
area offers prisoners the comfort of couches, a microwave and a decidedly
peaceful ambiance.

As far as prison facilities go, this kind of environment is truly a
rarity. Other pods in this prison are not as nicely furnished and are far
more noisy and hectic. Some pods house nearly 45 women, with one
correctional officer on the floor trying to keep track of the women's
movements. (Still and all, the relative comfort and privacy in the housing
pods are far better than dismal women's prison conditions in neighboring
states like Texas and Arizona, to say nothing of California's eight-women-
to-a-cell solution to overcrowding.)

With 30 women in residence and another 35 on a waiting list, the Crossings
pod is explicitly religious, and rigorously so. The program involves
engaging in spiritual counseling and religious meetings, prayer walks,
meditation, memorization of the New Testament and 732 hours of activities
ostensibly geared toward helping a woman succeed after her release from
prison, with a mandate that the woman stays involved in a "faith community."

There is no regular television for the Crossings women, and no hip-hop or
rock music to speak of. Even Christian rock music is explicitly frowned
upon, in accordance with IBLP instructions.

In one workbook, devotees are told that listening to rock music will lead
to an addiction to it. "As in the case of a drug addict, a rock addict'
will sacrifice God-given relationships with his parents and will neglect
fellowship with Godly Christians in his compulsion to listen to his music, &
Only God can free a rock addict' from the bondage of Satan's strongholds."

When the Crossings women join together to sing and dance to music, then,
it is only to devotional music deemed appropriate. During a visit, several
of the women perform expressive dances to "I Can Only Imagine" and "Psalms
Three" and to hear a vocal performance of "City Called Glory" by the head
of the choir. The emotional intensity of these performances is clear;
several women are, in fact, moved to tears. "It instills character in all
of us," one inmate says. "It betters our lives through belief in God."

As for NMWCF's claim that the program is reducing recidivism, it is true
that only a few women who graduated from that program have returned to
prison. It also is true that those numbers are based on "graduates," not
on the total number of women who have enrolled in the program and dropped
out, or been removed for drug sales or using the program as a cover for
other illicit activities.

But NMWCF Chaplain Compton is confident that the people who stay in the
program will have a better shot at reintegrating into their
communities. "There is a change in self-esteem," she says. "We see a
change in their behavior and the way that they handle things."

The reason for the dramatic change, adds Compton, has everything to do
with the transformative belief in a higher power. "They realize that there
is a God. They are helpless, and God is in control if they allow him to

As for Betty Ramirez, she too is proud of the changes that she has seen in
the women in the Crossings program. She is also a Christian who believes
strongly in the transformative power that faith can have on prisoners. She
raises no questions or objections about the religious texts used. Her job
is to keep things running smoothly. "I have a good working relationship on
both sides of the fence," she says. "I know what to look for and what to
expect. With so many women, you aren't running anything, you're just
trying to control things. For the [male guards] it's sometimes hard to
adjust. The women are very vocal and very opinionated."

At least for now.

Silja JA Talvi, a multiple award-winning Seattle-based journalist, has
lived and worked in Santa Fe. She is currently writing a book about women
in prison, and can be reached at

This article originally appeared in the Santa Fe Reporter. Reprinted here
with the author's permission.

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