- The Washington Times - Monday, August 9, 2004

BALTIMORE — Maryland’s Division of Correction is adopting a nondenominational personal-growth program for Christian inmates based on a best-selling book.

A California prison was the first to offer the program last year. It is based on the Rev. Rick Warren’s book “The Purpose-Driven Life,” and California officials credit it with helping to reduce prison violence by nearly 40 percent.

Volunteers from Maryland churches will implement the program for any inmates who choose to attend. More than 125 already have signed up for the first session Saturday at the Maryland Correctional Training Center near Hagerstown. Organizers said they hope to offer it in all of Maryland’s 27 prisons as well as to inmates in the District and Virginia.

“This is a way for people who want, who volunteer, to really get a handle on who they are,” said Mary Ann Saar, the state secretary of the Department of Public Works and Correctional Services who approved the program for statewide use. “Anything that helps the inmates focus their lives in positive way, I think, is tremendous help to all of us.”

A nonprofit, faith-based group called IIMainstream Inc. in Bowie proposed the program for use in the prison system and is providing the materials with donations and a $5,000 budget. Margaret Butler, the group’s director, said her Assembly of God church was participating in the program when she thought of taking it to the inmates.

The program begins with questions such as “Why am I here?” and “Am I doing what I was destined to do?” Other themes include service to others: “What is driving your life?” and “You were created to become like Christ.”

“Usually before the end you get one of those ‘ah ha’ moments,” Miss Butler said. “Most people make a [life] change.”

Correction officials said they adopted the program because it could help reduce prison violence and assist in the transition of inmates back into society.

“Their expectations of themselves and the world are way out of whack,” said Nancy Williams, director of religious and volunteer services for the prison system. “They think they deserve the high life” especially because of their anger at the world after prison, she said.

“The reason I like this program is not that it tells you you need to be Christlike,” Miss Williams said. “The things that it takes to be Christ-like are the same things it takes to be law-abiding-like.”

Prison officials are aware of the fine line between church and state, she said.

But religious-based programs do raise some doubts for the Washington, D.C.-based group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

“The main thing as a constitutional matter is are you going to treat everybody the same,” said the Rev. Barry Lynn, the group’s executive director. “Ideally, access should be equal across the board for different religions as well as for secular programs to teach life skills.”

Officials in California tried to link participation in “The Purpose-Driven Life” program to early release and other special advantages, Mr. Lynn said.

Maryland officials said there are no incentives or advantages for those who participate.

Miss Williams said she and her chaplains are careful not to give the appearance of evangelizing or converting. That’s why the program is only open to inmates who registered their religion as Christian.

“I think that if we opened it up to inmates of other religions, we could be accused of softly proselytizing,” she said.

No state funds are being used for the program, Miss Saar said.


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