- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 8, 2005

HAGERSTOWN, Md. — Former state prison inmate Richard Murray returned last month to the Maryland Correctional Training Center with a message sanctioned by the Ehrlich administration: Have faith.

The 26-year-old reformed thief and recovering heroin addict from Elkton is now an evangelical Christian minister. On this visit to the institution’s modest chapel, he preached the benefits of a Christian life-skills program called Rights of Passage that he said helped him land a job after his release last year.

“It came from finding myself on my knees in prayer, back there in my cell when everyone else was doing everything else,” Mr. Murray told about 200 rapt inmates at a weekly Bible-study class.

Rights of Passage, developed in-house, is among several faith-based elements of Project RESTART, a multifaceted prison-reform program that the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services is implementing at the correctional center and the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup.

RESTART stands for Re-entry, Enforcement and Services Targeting Addiction, Rehabilitation and Treatment.

The project, which will be expanded to all 27 institutions, includes more secular counseling and drug treatment. All such programs, secular and religious, are proven keys to reducing prison violence and turning ex-convicts into law-abiding citizens. But state prison officials say a strong religious faith can lay a firm foundation for an inmate’s successful return to society.

Frank C. Sizer Jr., commissioner for the state’s Division of Correction, said the faith-based programs are part of a “holistic” approach to rehabilitation involving all the prison’s resources. That includes the prison chaplains — state-paid clergy of various faiths — and their contacts with spiritual communities outside the prison walls.

Other religious aspects of RESTART include a volunteer-driven program based on the best-selling Christian book “The Purpose-Driven Life” and two programs under development that officials say will be adapted for all faiths.

The Maryland Correctional Training Center is the state’s largest prison, with 2,950 inmates. It was chosen to launch RESTART, in part, because of its high proportion of prisoners under 25 — the group most likely to be involved in prison violence, corrections officials said.

Maryland isn’t alone in seeking a spiritual route to prison reform. Faith-based prison programs, many run by evangelical Christian volunteers, have been promoted in California, Florida, Iowa and Ohio as having a calming, constructive influence on inmates.

But there is no clear evidence that religious programs are more effective than secular ones in increasing prison safety or reducing recidivism — the ratio of ex-convicts who re-offend, according to the Lanham-based American Correctional Association, the largest association of corrections professionals.

“Having an inmate involved in any sort of program tends to make for a happier inmate, reduce idleness and make the operation of a facility safer. But as for going into specifics — faith-based versus nonfaith-based, any discernible difference — I’m not sure anybody can answer that question,” said Joe Weedon, spokesman for the American Correctional Association.

Sixty-eight percent of offenders released from prisons in 15 states in 1994 were arrested for a felony or misdemeanor within three years, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Critics of faith-based prison reform — including church-state separation advocates and civil libertarians — say such programs may give preferential treatment to participants while subjecting other inmates to unwanted, taxpayer-funded religious messages.

Project RESTART as a whole has been criticized by the state prison workers’ union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which accuses the administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, of emphasizing rehabilitation at the expense of safety by adding counselors and case managers while the number of correctional officers has declined at some institutions.

Said Mr. Murray: “I think a lot of times, guys come through prison, and they try to get every program they can to prepare a resume when they go before the judge: ‘See, I went through this program and that program.’ And it’s like, ‘Well, why are you still getting in trouble?’”

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