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“One of the Most Egregious Violations of Church-State Separation” Prisons Welcome Fundamentalist Christian Education Programs Despite Conflicts with the Constitution

by Jacob Barrett

At a graduation ceremony held in the Nash Correctional Institution gym on December 15, 2021, a degree in pastoral ministry was awarded to 24 twenty-four North Carolina prisoners. Offered by Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, the four-year, in-person program is the only one so far available from an accredited school leading to a college degree for the 30,000 people held by the state Department of Public Safety (DPS).

According to the Prison Seminaries Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes Christian-based education behind bars, there are at least 19 degree programs offered by evangelical schools at state prisons across the country, with 11 more under development.

At federal prisons, the Department of Justice reports that 84% of prison chaplains are Protestant Christians, though that group includes only 34% of federal prisoners. Meanwhile some 11,073 Muslims in federal prisons struggle to practice their faith with just 13 chaplains to minister to them.

In North Carolina, DPS plans to transfer the new graduates—most of whom will spend the rest of their lives in prison with no chance of parole—around the state’s 55 prisons to “counsel and mentor inmates and to encourage them to seek out opportunities to better themselves.”

In other words, prisoners are being trained as Christian missionaries to proselytize other prisoners.

This has led to litigation elsewhere. In February 2003, Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AUSCS) filed two lawsuits in federal court, alleging that a Prison Fellowship Ministry program in Iowa state prisons called Inner Change Freedom Initiative violated the federal and state constitutional prohibitions against establishment of government-sponsored religion. The AUSCS executive director at the time, Rev. Barry W. Lynn, called it “one of the most egregious violations of church-state separation I’ve ever seen.”

“It literally merges religion and government,” he added, by using state funds to pay for a program that was not only sectarian but also discriminatory in its hiring practices, “allowing only fundamentalist Christians to become program employees.”

The money was taken, in part, from kickbacks Iowa received when prisoners placed collect phone calls at exorbitant rates, essentially forcing prisoners, their families, and friends to fund a religious program potentially at odds with their religious beliefs.

In September 2018, about 25 prisoners held by the Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC) began a four-year degree program offered by Corban University, a Christian school in Salem. The program is the brainchild of retired state judge Tom Kohl, who said he was inspired by a collaboration he observed between New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, whose then-warden, Burl Cain, was convinced what prisoners needed most was “moral transformation” through religious studies based on the Christian Bible.

Kohl’s nonprofit, Paid In Full, has funded professor pay and $500,000 in renovations to Oregon State Correctional Institution, plus classroom materials. ODOC pays for desks and chairs, plus guards, of course.

Meanwhile Cain continues to lobby for Bible colleges in prisons, which have spread to 15 states. He became the head of the Mississippi DOC in 2018 after leaving Angola under the cloud of a 2017 legislative auditor’s report that found he used 10 prison employees to perform work at his private home. [See: PLN, Nov. 2020, p.60.] 


Sources: Alabama Baptist, NPR, Prison Seminaries Foundation, Salem reporter


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