To fully appreciate the wrong headedness of a federal district court's recent decision expelling a faith-based program from an Iowa prison, it is necessary first to take a backward glance at the history of religious involvement in corrections in the United States.
As long ago as 1790, some Philadelphia notables sought an alternative to capital punishment, then the statu tory penalty for many felonies. Most of these reformers were Quakers, and they found their alternative in long-term imprisonment. The Quakers built the country's first prison — right behind Independence Hall. Then they faced another challenge: How would the prisoners spend their years of confinement? Most important, what would be the overriding aim of "doing time"?
The Philadelphians decided they would try to transform the criminal's character. To do so, they imposed a regimen of solitude, hard work, and religious renewal. They sought to convert the offender — not to a particular church, but to a God-fearing life of decent behavior. While it was easy to see that society would gain, the Quakers were motivated by what they considered their Christian duty to attend to their erring brothers.
The Quakers' approach caught on, and it gave the institution they created its generic name: penitentiary, as in "penitent." More recently, the "pen" has come to be called a "correctional institution." Same basic idea.
Similarly, for a long time in America, state authorities sent misbehaving kids to "asylums" or "reform schools" run by church groups. Perhaps the most famous product of these institutions was a boy named George, who at age 7 was deposited by indifferent parents at Saint Mary's Industrial School for Boys in Baltimore in 1902. (About half the residents of Saint Mary's were sent there by courts.) A Roman Catholic order, the Xaverian Brothers, ran the place. When he was just 19, George Herman "Babe" Ruth signed to play with the Boston Red Sox.
Religious groups were squeezed out of the "corrections" picture a long time ago. Sunday services in prisons never stopped, of course, and chaplains were usually on hand. But the religious purpose of punishment — to reform character, to prompt an inner change, to convert the miscreant — had mostly withered away by the turn of the twentieth century. Prisons became unforgiving places where hard men did hard time.
In the mid-1960s another sea change swept through the criminal justice system. Once again the idea was to make men better, this time via "rehabilitation." This "triumph of the therapeutic" largely supposed that criminal behavior was not chosen, but rather was caused by personal maladjustment and oppressive social conditions. Prisoners could be improved by counseling, vocational training, and a better environment. It didn't work very well, and that particular era of good feeling soon passed.
The tide had turned again by 1985. The primary aim of punishment became simply to keep criminals off the streets. Thus, we warehouse dangerous people. First-time offenders may receive leniency. But two strikes and you are out of circulation for a long time. Three whiffs and you are probably doing life. This plan is working, in that crime rates are way down.
But the prisons are full. The Quakers' question about the point of doing time is now largely a redundancy: The point of doing time is just that, to be isolated from the law-abiding citizens on whom criminals prey. Far from aiming to transform anyone's character, this system seems to suppose that few prisoners will be reformed.
Nevertheless, courts and corrections authorities understand that it would be better for all concerned if prisoners actually did mend their ways. Everyone wins when a prisoner discovers that he would rather, after all, be good. He is happy. The people who might otherwise be his victims are happy. And the government is spared the burden of further warehousing him.
To forestall recidivism, then, is still a goal of prisons — a secular purpose if ever there was one. But how to do it? Reforming character is no longer part of the "corrections" skill set. Prison authorities are most keenly interested in security: No one escapes, no one injures a guard, there are no gang wars. Meanwhile, the dramatic secularization of our constitutional law makes it impossible for the contemporary state to do what the Quakers did — deliberately foster religious renewal. Even on the subjects of morals and character, those who run prisons have to tread carefully lest they be seen as trying to impose religious morality.
So anyone who would combat recidivism faces a puzzle: How to instill in a prisoner the personal qualities that constitute decent character and will be indispensable to a law-abiding life outside — self-respect, responsibility, integrity, respect for others, pride in accomplishment, gratitude — without pushing religion? If prisons are going to attempt moral reform, they will have to do it indirectly, in creative partnership with private groups. That is because the groups that are in the character-forming and transforming business tend to be religious. Reforming prisoners, then, offers a terrific opportunity for "faith-based" social services, provided through cooperation between institutions of civil society and government, for the common good.
In no other arena is this cooperation more fitting. When it comes to "rehab" programs for inmates, for the drug-addled, for the alcoholic — when it comes to any service that engages the will, individual choice, the character of the recipient — government is necessarily ham-handed. Changing minds and hearts is not the strong suit of the bureaucrat. Instead, it is private charities, especially religious ones, that have the skills, the motivation, the experience. And they perform — none more successfully than Prison Fellowship.
Charles Colson founded Prison Fellowship shortly after his release from prison in 1976 for Watergate misdeeds. What began as a simple prison ministry has grown into a model for the faith-based delivery of needed "secular" services.