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Tennessee Sheriff Offered “Church Release” to Prisoners

by Christopher Zoukis

Maury County, Tennessee Sheriff Bucky Rowland was elected to office in 2014 on a platform that promoted prisoner rehabilitation. While it is not unusual for an elected official to give lip service to the concept of rehabilitating criminals, Sheriff Rowland was serious.

A major part of his efforts was the development of the Church Work Release program; the program, which started in December 2016, allowed certain prisoners to leave the jail to attend church services. The prisoners were vetted and assigned a spiritual mentor before participating in the program, wore civilian clothes to the service and were escorted by their mentor, not by jail staff. Participants had to be within 60 days of the end of their sentence with no disciplinary issues.

Sheriff Rowland defended the program from detractors, insisting that the people in his jail were not just prisoners – they are human beings.

“We will invest in them to change that way of thinking,” Rowland told “Ninety percent of the people in this jail – they are good folks. They have addiction problems, drugs or alcohol. They get clean, and they say they don’t want to be here, I’m not coming back. I think they truly want a change in their life, and I believe it starts here.”

Some members of the local community expressed outrage that prisoners were sitting next to them in church without handcuffs or armed guards.

“That is unspeakable and they are going into church and nobody is watching them,” said local resident Terri Anderson. “If they are offenders, we have a right to know they live next to us.... I fear for everyone who goes to church with the assault charges and everything mentioned.”

Rowland, who said prisoners with violent charges are not allowed in the program, addressed the issue of unsupervised offenders in the community, saying, “They are not going to have corrections facilities or the officers or a deputy there with them in 60 days” once they are released.

The Church Work Release program was suspended in August 2017, when prisoner Forrest Voorhes was caught trying to smuggle drugs and tobacco into the jail after being released to attend church services.

The program was criticized by atheists, who noted it was only available for prisoners to attend church – not those who wanted to attend secular events. Sam Grover, an attorney with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, sent a letter to Sheriff Rowland on September 1, 2017 in which he warned “a government-sponsored program that ties rehabilitation to church attendance raises serious concerns under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”

According to staff at the Maury County jail, the Church Work Release program was discontinued last year. 


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