Illustration of prison guard wearing a priest's collar standing over prisoners, in front of a fencepost resembling a cross


Rehabilitation or Forced Conversion?

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj

By Winnifred Fallers Sullivan

Imagine, if you will, the following: a group of men living together in a building. Each of them may leave only with the permission of the authorities, authorities who wield both religious and secular power. Each day is structured according to a uniform schedule. The day’s activities include prescribed times of prayer, memorization of and reflection on scripture, work, and self-examination in conversation with personal advisers. Participation in daily/weekly communal worship, including singing, is mandatory. Worldly activities are prohibited. Private property is very limited. Sexual purity is mandated. The expressed goal is conformity of one’s life to the example of Christ.

A Christian monastery?

No. A state prison in the United States in 2006. What is described is life on a wing of the Newton facility of the Iowa Department of Corrections—a life that Judge Robert Pratt, the federal judge who heard a constitutional challenge to Iowa’s contract with the evangelical group Prison Fellowship Ministries, which administers that wing, called a kind of “Protestant monasticism.”

As so-called “faith-based” prison rehabilitation programs of various kinds proliferate in the United States, courts are being asked to consider whether such in-prison programs should be viewed as an unconstitutional “establishment” of religion within the meaning of the first amendment to the United States Constitution.

Can there be any doubt? What is their defense? How do these programs describe themselves?

InnerChange Freedom Initiative, a project of Charles Colson’s Prison Fellowship Ministries, now administers 18-month residential pre-release rehabilitation programs (followed by a course of “aftercare” mentoring) in the prisons of five states. IFI’s expressed goal is the reduction of recidivism, now as high as 70 percent in some areas of the U.S., in a time of the explosive growth in the prison population.

What IFI offers is known in the corrections community as a “values-based” program. In other words, rather than social values being implicit, as they are in most contemporary prisoner programs, including those addressing substance abuse, anger management, etc., IFI describes a program built around explicit attention to and transmission of six “pro-social” values that they believe many prisoners lack: integrity, restoration, responsibility, fellowship, affirmation, and productivity. IFI says that it has no religious test for entry or exit from its program. Participation in the program is entirely voluntary and IFI insists that these six values are universal and are available through all religions as well as through secular culture.

These “universal” values are, however, openly taught by IFI through the use of biblical texts and Christian worship. In its materials, IFI describes all of the problems of prisoners as “sin” for which the sole cure is a turning to Jesus. It boasts on its fundraising website of “souls won for the Kingdom of God” through the IFI program. Prisoners are tested on their knowledge of the biblical text and Christian doctrine. They are required to read bestselling evangelical self-help books such as The Bondage Breaker. They must attend revival services at which there is a weekly altar call. Group baptisms in a full-immersion pool are a feature of the program. Yet IFI claims that the particular religious language and culture of its program is merely the “vehicle,” as they say, through which universal values are transmitted. IFI speaks “evangelical” because that is who they are. Non-evangelical prisoners are expected, in effect, to translate the values into their own religious, or non-religious, idiom if the evangelical one is not their own, and IFI says that such prisoners may participate in some of their own religious practices, such as mass for Catholics, sweat lodges for Native Americans, and the observance of Ramadan by Muslims. IFI insists that its goal is secular—that is, to “civilize” the prisoners, not to convert them to evangelical Christianity.

Who is right? Can it be constitutional for public funds to be used for such activities, even if they can be shown to reduce recidivism? Can religion be understood as a mere vehicle for the transmission of universal values? According to Judge Pratt, the IFI program is a shocking and obvious violation of the establishment clause, a program of forced conversion paid for by public funds.1

There is no present conclusive evidence on the basis of peer-reviewed scientific studies that faith-based rehabilitation programs are more effective than secular alternatives. But prisoners are not children. And their problems are multiple and real. Should prisoners be allowed to choose such programs and should states enable such programs, if they can be shown work for a large number of prisoners? Because prisons are one place where first amendment guarantees mean not government neutrality but the explicit management of religious life, prisons are an interesting place to consider the religious anthropology of the twenty-first century and the multiple and shifting borders between the secular/religious on the one hand and the universal/particular on the other. Does universality guarantee secularity? And if it is found that such programs are constitutional, can the government discriminate against religiously based rehabilitation programs, and other faith-based social services, that do not teach “universal” values?


  1. The opinion in this case by Judge Pratt can be found on the websites of Prison Fellowship Ministries ( and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, which represented the complaining prisoners ( An appeal has been taken from the decision. Sullivan served in the case as an expert witness on American religion for the plaintiffs. She offered no opinion as to the constitutionality of the practices at issue.

Winnifred Fallers Sullivan is Associate Professor of Law and director of the Law and Religion Program at SUNY Buffalo Law School. She is on leave for the 2006–07 academic year at the National Humanities Center. Her research focuses on the phenomenology of religion in modern legal contexts. Her most recent book is The Impossibility of Religious Freedom (Princeton, 2005).

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