- The Washington Times - Monday, December 29, 2003

A state prison near Jacksonville, Fla., has become the nation’s first “faith-based” jailhouse, combining spirituality with hard time.

At the revamped 800-man Lawtey Correctional Institution in northern rural Florida, inmates who are nearing release and have had clean records for at least the past 12 months will be involved in activities such as prayer sessions, religious studies, choir practice and religious counseling seven days a week.

“There are already faith-based dorms in 10 Florida prisons, so operating an entire faith-based prison was the next logical step,” said Sterling Ivey, spokesman for the Florida Department of Corrections.

Mr. Ivey said the idea for Lawtey’s new mission came from state Corrections Secretary James V. Crosby.

Mr. Crosby proposed the idea to Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who was “enthralled,” said Mr. Ivey. The governor says he and his older brother, President Bush, share the view that the best way to rehabilitate criminals is to “lead them to God.”

The governor was on hand for the Christmas Eve dedication of the new lockup.

“This is not just fluffy policy. This is serious policy,” Gov. Bush told the London Daily Telegraph, proclaiming that Florida is now “home to the first faith-based prison in the United States.”

Lawtey is a male-only, medium-security prison. Its inmates have been convicted of felonies such as burglary, holdups, car thefts and assaults. “Eighty percent of the individuals in this prison are within three years of release,” Mr. Ivey said.

Not all inmates were pleased with the prison’s new religious focus. In fact, 111 prisoners requested transfers to other jails, but their beds were quickly filled with inmates from other corrections centers around the state. With 792 prisoners at this time, Lawtey is already nearing capacity, Mr. Ivey said.

The governor said he hopes Lawtey’s new format leads to increased spirituality among inmates and a sharp drop in Florida’s recidivism rate, now at 38 percent.

Inmates at Lawtey represent at least 26 different religious faiths, according to Mr. Ivey. He said the inmates include Roman Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, Mormons, Rastafarians, adherents of American Indian beliefs, and Buddhists.

After the dedication ceremonies, Lawtey inmate Martin Cliburn — serving 6 years for aggravated assault, auto theft and resisting arrest — told the Daily Telegraph: “I’ve been screwing up my whole life, I see this as a turning point.”

Mr. Ivey estimates between 35 percent to 40 percent of the curriculum will be dedicated to religion. “The majority of classes will be devoted to self-betterment, including topics such as anger management, parenting, job training, how to write letters and balancing a checkbook,” he said.

Mr. Ivey said there’s been a “tremendous public response” to the prison’s change in function. “The number of supportive e-mails we’ve received has been overwhelming,” he said yesterday.

He also noted the jail will have the services of “over 500 volunteers” to make sure all inmates have access to the religious services and studies they want.

“Eighty-eight [inmates] indicated they don’t have a professed faith, but they still wanted to be part of this program,” Mr. Ivey said.

Published reports indicate that the American Civil Liberties Union is considering bringing a lawsuit to block Lawtey’s new program on the grounds that it violates the constitutional separation of church and state.

According to the Daily Telegraph, ACLU attorneys are awaiting the outcome of a test case challenging a Florida state voucher program that uses tax dollars to send students to religious schools.

Mr. Ivey says he doubts there will be a lawsuit over the faith-based prison. “We haven’t been sued over our faith-based dorms,” one of which is in a women’s prison, he said.

However, Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the faith-based prison was “clearly an unconstitutional scheme.”

In a statement, Mr. Lynn said: “A state can no more create a faith-based prison than it could set up faith-based public schools or a faith-based police department.”

He noted that his group filed a lawsuit to block a state-sponsored fundamentalist Christian program operating with tax dollars at an Iowa prison. The case, which challenges state funding of Charles Colson’s Inner Change program for jail inmates, is pending in federal court.

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