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Old 08-23-2004, 08:05 AM
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Post ARTICLE: Faith-based prison programs in Georgia uplift inmates

Faith-based prison programs aim to uplift inmates
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 08/21/04

HAWKINSVILLE Angela DeSimone compares herself to the Tasmanian Devil, the cartoon character who cuts a path of destruction as he spins out of control.

Drug abuse led DeSimone, 31, down a path to a seven-year prison sentence for burglary. In prison since 2002, she has been written up nine times for fighting with other inmates and disobeying guards.

DeSimone finally got tired of fighting herself, as well as others. When she heard officials were starting a faith- and character-based dorm at her Middle Georgia prison, she signed up.

"I think this program is going to do wonders for me," said DeSimone, who was encouraged by Pulaski State Prison Warden Guy Hickman to try it. "I can see the change in me already in terms of not wanting to get in trouble. I want to do the right thing for once in my life."

If DeSimone is sincere and stays in the program and out of prison once she is released she will be a perfect example of what officials are hoping to achieve by creating faith-based dorms in six Georgia prisons.

Religion not pushed

Georgia corrections officials toured a faith-based prison in Florida and liked what they saw. On Wednesday they will hold a dedication of the new faith-based program at Pulaski. Already 444 inmates have entered the program, which aims to teach them personal responsibility, ethics, life skills, tolerance and respect for themselves and others. Education and substance abuse counseling are also available.

The prison system's goal is twofold.

First, keep prisoners from returning. Stemming the growth of the prison population is critical with the system costing Georgia taxpayers nearly $900 million a year. The dorms also encourage inmates to behave. Hickman said one guard can supervise 96 inmates, a task usually requiring two or three.

However, critics say there are no studies proving the effectiveness of faith-based programs and they unconstitutionally mix government and religion.

Religion in prisons is nothing new. Most Georgia prisons employ a chaplain, and inmates routinely attend Bible study and worship services run by volunteers. But the introduction of an intensive 12-week program is a first in Georgia.

The faith-based dorms at Pulaski look and feel like a regular prison. There are cells. There are guards standing watch. But there are differences. The yelling, cursing and fights that plague the general population are rare here. Inmates generally do the same things other prisoners do work during the day on details. But they also attend classes, where they may learn how to dress for a job, communicate better with their families or cope with adversity.

The dorms bring together like-minded inmates who want to explore spirituality.

"If you're in other dorms, you have a tendency to get caught up in other people's chaos," said Michelle Allen, 33, serving time for robbery. "We're all here with the goal of becoming better people."

The bookshelves of the faith-based dorm at Pulaski, a women's prison, are filled with titles by Christian evangelist Billy Graham and numerous versions of the Bible. But prison officials say they are not trying to push religion on inmates. "I'm OK, You're OK" and other secular motivational books are also available.

"We have lots of different ways to jar their thinking," said Pulaski chaplain Judy Knapp. "My job is to work with them, not to convert them."

The majority of the program's inmates, who number 317, are Protestants, 33 are Catholics, 29 are Muslim, five are Jehovah's Witnesses and one is Wiccan. Fifty-nine claim no religious affiliation.

To qualify, an inmate must have a record clear of behavioral problems for the preceding 90 days. A single infraction fighting, stealing, failing to follow orders is an automatic ticket back to the general population. Officials are trying to schedule inmates for the faith- and character-based dorms as they near release. But there are lifers in the program as well.

Kareemah Hanifa, a Muslim serving a life sentence for kidnapping and murder, said she was skeptical about joining the dorm because she believed it would be geared toward Christians. But Hanifa, 26, of Atlanta said the quiet in the dorm had allowed her to work on a book she's writing about Ramadan. She said no one had tried to convert her and she was able to practice her religion.

Church-state issue
Prisons in Walker, Habersham, Macon, Lowndes and Calhoun counties also have faith-based programs. The plan is to start one in all of Georgia's state prisons.

The idea is gaining favor across the country. Seven states have such residences, and five others are planning them, according to a 2003 survey.

Georgia officials, squeezed by a shrinking budget for rehabilitation, in April toured Lawtey Correctional Institution in North Florida, the nation's first completely faith-based prison. Georgia Corrections Commissioner James Donald was impressed.

"We are limited by resources in making substantive changes in people's lives," said Donald. "I think faith works simply because it provides hope."

Donald said he would ultimately like to see inmates "adopted" by churches that would help them find a job and a place to live upon release. The idea, Donald said, is to steer them away from the peer group that in many cases led them to crime.

But programs in other states are being challenged.

Iowa faces a lawsuit by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. The group claims the state is violating the U.S. Constitution by setting up a faith-based dorm and paying a prison ministry to work with inmates. The group claims prisoners who participate get special privileges, such as television access and free phone calls.

"There have been studies on what works in prison intensive rehabilitation programs that include a variety of components," said Ayesha Khan of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. "That's not true with these religious programs. So what does that mean? That what they have going for them is that they're cheap?"

'A higher power'

Khan said her organization was monitoring Georgia and other states to make sure their programs included people regardless of their religious beliefs and that taxpayer money was not used to support them. The Iowa program differs from Georgia's, however, in that it contracts with a ministry that is strictly Christian-based.

Believers in faith-based prison programs feel strongly that they can make a difference.

Ken Cooper, who advises the Florida prison system and leads classes on addiction recovery at Lawtey, credits God with turning his life around. Cooper, who served time for bank robbery, went on to run Prisoners for Christ, a ministry that provided inmates a place to live upon release.

Cooper said that of the 1,380 inmates in his program over 12 years, only 110 returned to a Florida prison. He acknowledges some of them may have reoffended in other states, but he estimates that number is low.
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