Rehabilitation Through Religion

Praying Prisoners religion
It's not the typical image of life behind bars.

At Florida's Lawtey Correctional Institution, inmates, like Carlos Fuller, are part of a controversial experiment in rehabilitation.

"I go to church in the afternoons and at night," Fuller told CBS News Correspondent Thalia Assuras. "And it helps me cope with being in prison."

Lawtey is the country's first faith-based prison where every prisoner must attend character-improvement programs ranging from GED classes to anger-management courses.

Sitting right up front is Fuller, who's serving three years for aggravated battery. Most of the classes are taught and paid for by local church volunteers.

The 800 prisoners here are offered services and studies from the Koran to the Bible.

Pastor Steve McCoy says fewer men have returned to prison since Lawtey got religion.

"You know, we're not complicated at all," says McCoy. " We're about just telling guys, 'Hey, we believe … you can do more than you've ever done."

Part of the initial success at Lawtey is the inmates themselves. They have to apply to come here. They are accepted based partly on good behavior, and they know that any serious misstep means a transfer out.

"I think this is a terrible program," says Rev. Barry Lynn.

Lynn champions the separation of church and state. He charges that inmates following Lawtey's righteous path have access to many more programs than Florida's 80,000 other prisoners.

"It's not singing 'Amazing Grace' that keeps you from going back to jail," says Lynn. "It's having a job when you get out and Florida has cut the funding for those kinds of programs."

Franchatta Barber, the director of programs for Florida prisons, denies they Lawtey is pushing religion.

"We're not a Jesus jail," says Barber.

State officials stress prisoners are no longer forced to attend religious services.

"It's about change, a life-changing experience through your own personal responsibility as well as your personal growth and your character development," says Barber.

"I think God wanted me to come here for some reason," says Fuller.

If he hadn't been accepted to Lawtey, Fuller says he'd be "right back where I started from, and that's not where I want to be."

With good behavior, Fuller will be out next year, but his spot won't be vacant for long. Thousands of inmates are already on a waiting list.