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Effects of Florida’s Faith Based Prisons Found to Be Promising in Reducing Recidivism

Effects of Florida’s Faith Based Prisons Found to Be Promising in Reducing Recidivism

by David M. Reutter

A report by the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center concluded the statistically significant difference between the share of prisoners in Florida’s Faith and Character Based Institutions (FCBI) and a comparison group of male prisoner reincarcerated at six months after release suggests “cautious optimism” regarding the FCBI experience and its relationship to subsequent offending, at least in the short term.

Florida first tried a faith based program with a prototype dorm program at Tomoka Correctional Institution (TCI) in 1999. Gov. Jeb Bush expanded the initiative by opening the nation’s first prison fully dedicated to the FCBI model on December 24, 2003. That program is at Lawtey Correctional Institution (LCI). In April 2004, the women’s prison at Hillsborough Correctional Institution (HCI) was converted to the FCBI model.

Another FCBI was opened at Wakulla Correctional Institution (WCI) in March 2006. That program and the one at TCI were not included in the research of the report addressed here. It was pretty much agreed upon by the staff, prisoners, and volunteers associated with the FCBIs at LCI and HCI that the mission is to help prisoners “build moral character, develop spiritual resources, and acquire life skills that will lead to pro-social behavior both behind bars and after release.”

To avoid lawsuits on the church-state issue, Florida’s FCBI model is “entirely funded and delivered by community volunteers.” Those people volunteer individually, or more commonly, as members of a community institution such as a church, other religious institution, or civic group. The prisoners, also, volunteer to participate in the program, and they represent thirty-one different religious faiths, but 77 percent of them are Christian.

Like most Florida prisons, the FCBIs, however, provide a much greater and more diverse array of religious and character development programs. To remain at the FCBI prison, prisoners must participate in one program session a week, which are presented in a classroom setting.

At LCI, the men participated in 8.3 program sessions per month, on average, with religious services being the most popular. The women at NCI only averaged participating in 3.7 program sessions per month, and their favorite programs wee character- building curriculum.

Amongst the staff, prisoners, and volunteers interviewed for the report, the overwhelming sentiment was that FCBIs “offer a more peaceful, relaxed, and positive environment than many other” prisons. This was attributed to the fact that FCBI prisoners self-selected, so they may be more motivated to change, which results in less conflicts, a cleaner prison, and the misbehavior incidents tend to be isolated rather than ongoing. The atmosphere is also fostered by guards, who seem to be more inclined to resolve problems with prisoners more informally through discussion and mediation rather than immediately issuing disciplinary reports.

Some guards, however, dislike the rehabilitative correctional philosophy of the FCBIs, requesting to work in an environment that is not so relaxed. This revealed a problem. The guards at FCBIs receive the same training as guards at other prisons, but handle extended prisoner movement and interaction with 400 volunteers monthly. The report highly recommended that specialized training be provided to these guards to foster assisting in the FCBI mission and fulfill their critical security responsibilities.

It was also recommended that the mission statement be clearly developed for all to share in the vision. Currently, the mission is an understanding and not stated in policy. The FCBI seemed to present a positive environment, but an increased focus on family visitation seemed lacking. The programs between LCI and HCI were disparate, being set by the prison’s wardens. It is questionable whether disparate, being set by the prison’s wardens. It is questionable whether those programs fully fit the prisoner’s needs. Prisoners said the FCBI generally accommodated issues of religious diversity and take into account the needs of religious minorities and non-religious prisoner.

As for the effect on recidivism, statistics for FCBI prisoners from the study’s beginning date of September 30, 2004, and its end on May 31, 2006 were provided by Florida prison officials. The participating prisoners were low custody, non-violent offenders. They were matched with similar comparison prisoners on the 6,353 prisoner waiting list and those in general population prisons.

None of the FCBI prisoners were reincarcerated within 6 months of release, compared to 2.1 percent of other released prisoners. The reincarceration rate for 12 months after release was 2.4 percent for the control group, which compares to 1.4 percent for FCBI prisoners. The average length to reincarceration was 371 days for the FCBI prisoners, as opposed to 262 days for the control group.

The study was limited in time and the small subset of prisoner who had completed the FCBI. The self-selection process may have also contributed because the FCBI prisoners are the “cream of the crop,” who are motivated to change. Yet, the report said the findings are “promising” for this new model of prisons. A significant shortcoming of this study, like others, is there is no secular, non religious program with which to compare it.
Prisoners seeking rehabilitation services in the Florida prison system have a choice of FCBI or nothing. As the state abandon’s its rehabilitative responsibilities, it turns them over to fundamentalist religious groups with the will and the financial means to provide rehabilitative services to those prisoners who desire them and who are willing to put up with a steady dose of fundamentalist Christian proselytizing regardless of their own religious faith, or lack of faith.

The next report should focus on the dorm based programs at TCI and WCI. Ike Griffin, President of Horizon Communities in Prison, notes there are significant differences between those programs, which he oversees, and the FCBIs. The dorm based model requires full participation in all programs other than faith, require intense daily programming for a year, are presented in the dorms, and they teach citizenship experientially by prisoners living with and helping one another.

Griffin noted that budget cuts have reduced programming in preparation for reentry.
“Where that news is not particularly welcome, it is not all bad. Volunteers will have to be utilized in broader roles,” said Griffin. “I believe that inmate preparation for reentry could be greatly enhanced by thoughtful utilization of inmate participation of inmates in the teaching process.” He noted a 1969 federal ruling on prisoners being over one another has stopped this process. “Financial issues may help re-think that position,” he said.

The financial cost of housing an ever-growing prisoner population has been a driving force behind states embracing the FCBI model, placing rehabilitation costs in the hands of private entities by providing them access to prisoners. The knock on these programs has been there is no research to support the belief the model is effective. This report, while severely limited, is a beginning. The full report, entitled: Evaluation of Florida’s Faith- and Character- Based Institutions, is available on PLN’s website.

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