Saturday, November 27, 2004

The God Gulag

FL Corrections chief Crosby - say "amen" or else
Bush Brothers - on a mission from God

I was going to write something ironic about the renewed call for faith-based initiatives, and how that means we'll need a Department of Religion. As I began to read and think about the whole issue of faith-based policy, however, darker realities began to set in, especially regarding "faith-based prison reform." It has been suggested that faith-based prisons will be high on the list of second term initiatives for the Bush Administration. That's a grim prospect. The Bush prison initiative disinters a 200-year-old thought control experiment and animates it with an "Up With People"/"Promisekeepers" facade. The Department of Religion will have to wait. The experimenters are at the gates.

The Acton Institute, a religiously-based think tank supporting faith-based imprisonment, is open about what it considers the value of this 'reform' program: "Able adults who are behind bars cannot contribute to the economy by using their God-given talents creatively. They cannot build up civil society by participating in social networks and supporting families." In other words, let's get more workers on the street - devout, presumably compliant workers. Let's have them join "social networks," which is a code word for churches, boosting membership and conservative voting rolls. Lastly, once they are indoctrinated let's make sure that "support families," meaning "procreate" and create more model citizens.

The prison "reform" project is actually a time travel experiment that takes us back to the 18th Century. That's a long journey even for this Administration, which usually aims no further back than the pre-New Deal 1920's. The first faith-based prison reform project was undertaken by Quakers in Pennsylvania in 1790, attempting to replace the dungeons of the time with a place where prisoners were kept in enforced isolation and given religious training. The hope was that the spartan living conditions and enforced spiritual indoctrination would eventually make the prisoners penitent (hence the name "penitentiary.") Inmates were housed in more comfortable surroundings, but were not allowed books, social contact, or any other distractions. They were required to work constantly, which would have pleased the Acton Institute, and given only the Bible for study. The abusive and coercive nature of this experiment led to its widespread condemnation and eventual closure, and these facilities eventually became the 'penitentiaries' of today.

Flash-forward to the 21st Century, where Florida "Secretary of Corrections" James Crosby described Jeb Bush's model faith-based prison as "a cocoon" where inmates could practice their faith free from "negative pressures and interactions." Mr. Crosby, thy speech doth sound strangely familiar.

Nobody can rationally argue that our prison system doesn't need reform. It is a torture chamber with 1,000 rooms. It is no coincidence that guards from the U.S. prison system were used to supervise the torture at Abu Ghraib. Yet the "reform" being promised here is a thought control project run amok. The misinformation being spread about this initiative includes the following:

Participation is strictly voluntary. Prisoners are, in fact, heavily coerced to participate. The potential consequences for refusing to participate include a longer prison term and harsher living conditions while incarcerated. Given this enormous pressure, it is surprising that 100 out of 800 prisoners at Lawtey Prison (the Florida experiment) declined to participate when the program was created, knowing that they would be transferred to other prisons and denied the opportunity of early release as a result.

It is non-sectarian. The program's organizers stated, and the press dutifully reported, that the prisoners at Lawtey represented 26 faiths. This implies an ecumenical program, but experience teaches otherwise. The InnerChange Prison Initiative, initiated in Texas in 1997 when George W. Bush was Governor and expanded into Iowa, is exclusively Christian. A more telling statistic, reported in Science & Technology News: "Most of the groups that work at Lawtey are Christian; on a roster provided by the Florida Department of Corrections, there are no non-Christian volunteers listed."

Just to underscore the point, I'm sure all the non-Christian prisoners got the message when Jeb Bush came to visit for the holidays and said, “I can’t think of a better place to reflect on the awesome love of our Lord Jesus than to be here at Lawtey Correctional. God bless you.” Happy Hannukah to you too, Mr. Governor.

There is no coercion to practice religion: In fact, the InnerChange Initiative required prisoners to study the Bible and to attend church regularly for three months after release. Failure to comply is reported to prison authorities and can impact release and parole restrictions. In Lawtey, Science & Theology News describes an evening service:

“My job is to guide you to a personal relationship with the god of your faith. Amen?” (the leader) asks, moving from one man to the next and resting his palms on their shoulders. “And the only way I know how to do that is prayer.”

The leader is asking for an "amen" back from each prisoner. Jews don't shout out individual "amens" like evangelical Christians do. Neither do Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, or Native Americans. Imagine the social pressure on a prisoner who does not, in fact, reply with a hearty "amen" in front of his peers - and under the eyes of the warden, who was sitting in a back row during the service.

The Prison Fellowship Initiative actively participates in the faith-based prison initiative. Its leader, Pat Nolan, is refreshingly honest about his motivations, in contrast to the Bush brothers: “We don’t do this because it works. We do it because it’s what Jesus calls us to,” Nolan says. “We do it because Jesus was explicit, and we think that Christianity is the way, the truth and the life. That’s what we have to share. If we try to get it down to a generic faith thing, it loses its meaning.”

If Pat Nolan was talking my Parole Board, I know exactly what I'd say to him: "Amen."

In a related story, a Christian-based operator of privatized prisons called the Maranatha Corporation has been charged by the State of California with misappropriating $1.6 million in funds collected from prisoners' pay phones and redirecting it to their reform efforts. They are in negotiations with the state, which wants them to return the funds. "Maranatha" means "our Lord is coming." Maybe he'll bring the money.

Charles Dickens wrote extensively about the horrors of Poor Houses and prisons in England, and one might have expected him to be de-sensitized to harsh penal conditions by the time he visited an American penitentiary. Yet he wrote this in 1842 after visiting one such institution: "Those who designed this system of Prison Discipline ... do not know what it is that they are doing. ... I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body."

Let me hear you say 'yeah.'