Bill Berkowitz*

OAKLAND, California, Oct 20 2006 (IPS) — An influential U.S. evangelical leader has lashed out at opponents of so-called faith-based prison projects, arguing that they are blind to the threat of terrorism in the “homeland” by former inmates who have converted to Islam while in U.S. jails.

Deeply disappointed by a federal district court judge’s decision that his InnerChange Freedom Initiative operating in Iowa’s prisons is unconstitutional, Charles Colson, one of President Richard Nixon’s key operatives during the Watergate scandal years and currently the head of Prison Fellowship Ministries, has seized upon the findings of a recently issued report about the growing threat of Islamic terrorists being recruited in U.S. prisons.

The suit against the Prison Fellowship Ministries/InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI) was filed by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State and Jerry Ashburn, an inmate at Iowa’s Newton Correctional Facility. It argued that the state gave preferential treatment to inmates enrolled in IFI, which had operated at the Newton facility since 1999.

The IFI website describes the initiative as “a revolutionary, Christ-centered, Bible-based prison programme supporting prison inmates through their spiritual and moral transformation beginning while incarcerated and continuing after release.” Launched in 1997 in Texas, it aims to reduce recidivism through prisoners accepting Jesus Christ into their lives.

Colson’s group receives government funding for prison projects in four states – Minnesota, Kansas, Iowa, and Texas.

IFI is appealing the decision and the judge has stayed the ruling while the appeal is pending, so the group is still receiving money, said Rob Boston, a spokesperson for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

In a recent commentary titled “What’s Hidden in the Shadows: Radical Islam and U.S. Prisons”, Colson, who last year was named by Time magazine as one of the 25 most influential evangelical Christians in the U.S., wrote “I don’t usually make predictions, but here’s one I’ll venture: If, God forbid, an attack by home-grown Islamist radicals occurs on American soil, many, if not most, of the perpetrators will have converted to Islam while in prison.”

Colson wrote that “Out of the Shadows: Getting Ahead of Prisoner Radicalisation,” a study produced by researchers at George Washington University’s Homeland Security Policy Institute and the University of Virginia’s Critical Incident Analysis Group, concluded that “the U.S… is at risk of facing the sort of homegrown terrorism currently plaguing other countries”. The basis of that risk is America’s “large prison population”.

According to the study, “With the world’s largest prison population (over 2 million – 93 percent of whom are in state and local prisons and jails) and highest incarceration rate (701 out of every 100,000), America faces what could be an enormous challenge – every radicalised prisoner becomes a potential terrorist recruit.”

It says that the absence of monitoring by “authoritative Islamic chaplains” permits “materials that advocate violence [to infiltrate] the prison system undetected.”

One former employee of an Islamist group told a Senate committee, “I know of only a few instances in which prisons rejected the literature we attempted to distribute – and it was never because of the literature’s radicalism.”

The report also acknowledged the presence in prisons of right-wing homegrown white supremacists that “have an extensive history of terrorist attacks”.

Although the report doesn’t delve into the value of evangelical Christian-focused faith-based prison programmes, Colson, who founded Prison Fellowship Ministries after serving time in prison for Watergate-related crimes, does. He pointed out that he had been warning about the potential terrorist threat from Muslims who are radicalised while in prison since 2001, and he believes that court decisions against his faith-based prison projects exacerbate the problem.

Colson directly attacked groups that have opposed his InnerChange Freedom Initiative, singling out Barry Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a religious watchdog group, for special condemnation.

“Unfortunately, opponents like…Lynn…are blind to this, which puts more than the programme at risk – because, as we saw in the case of the shoe bomber, Richard Reid, groups that are now operating in the shadows of our prisons are a real danger to us.” “Colson’s comments were astonishing,” Lynn told IPS in a telephone interview. “When I read it I could hardly believe what I was reading.”

“There literally appears to be no level that Charles Colson will not stoop to these days. In this political climate, calling someone an aider and abettor of terrorism is the worst thing you can call somebody. He seems to have run out of any sensible arguments so he is turning to lies and character assassination.”

Lynn, whose recently published book is titled “Piety & Politics: The Right-Wing Assault on Religious Freedom” (Random House, 2006), believes that Colson’s playing of the terrorism card is clearly a sign of desperation.

“He realises that his programmes are on shaky ground because of the Iowa decision,” Lynn pointed out. “He can’t make a legal argument. In fact, in the 38 months during which the case was pending, Prison Fellowship never presented the success of the InnerChange programme because he did not want that evidence to be subject to cross-examination by our side.”

Colson’s commentary also pointed to “studies” that “prove” that faith-based prison programmes “are the best solution to the alienation and rage that fuels conversions to radical Islam…inside the prisons.”

However, one of the only studies frequently cited by Colson has been debunked for playing fast and loose with both its methodology and its conclusions, according to Claire Hughes, a correspondent for the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy.

In late August, Hughes wrote that “A study completed three years ago by the University of Pennsylvania Centre for Research on Religion in Urban Civil Society on Prison Fellowship’s InnerChange Freedom Initiative and touted by the Bush administration showed that after two years out of prison, only eight percent of InnerChange graduates were re-incarcerated, compared to 20 percent of inmates in the general population.”

“But,” Hughes pointed out, “the study drew criticism for defining ‘graduates’ as those who had obtained jobs. When other programme participants were included, the data, as reported in the studies, showed that InnerChange participants were more likely to be re-incarcerated than the general population of ex-prisoners.”

Do faith-based prison programmes have a future? In December 2003, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush converted the medium-security Lawtey Correctional Institution into the nation’s first entirely faith-based prison. Despite objections from church-state separation advocates, Florida’s Department of Corrections opened two more faith- and character-based prisons – one for inmates serving long sentences and another exclusively for women – and, according to an ABC News report earlier this year, intends to open as many as 30 more.

“The state believes that these kinds of programmes mean less disciplinary action and lower recidivism, but no scientific study has proved anything of that nature,” ABC News noted.

*Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange column “Conservative Watch” documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the U.S. Right.


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