Jails for Jesus? November 4, 2009

Jails for Jesus?

A privately-run prison that will only hire Christian staffers is getting a lot of support from Wakita, Oklahoma officials. It could be up and running in 16 months.

“The staff, being all born-again believers, will see this as a mission,” [founder of Corrections Concepts Inc. Bill Robinson] says. That, he says, is “about changing criminals into citizens.”

The prison would accept only inmates near the end of their sentences who volunteer to attend and sign an agreement to participate, the paper says.

“They don’t have to go to church, or Bible study, but they have to participate in the curriculum, which is Christ-centered,” Robinson says.

Despite the fact that this would be privately-run and accepting only prisoners who volunteer to be there, I am concerned there will be church-state violations rampant. One commenter here writes: “A ‘Christian’ private prison funded with $42 million in public bond money, would still have to be reimbursed that $42.80 a day by the state.” I’m not sure how accurate that is, but I’d be surprised if a prison could be run with no government intervention at all.

This is a case just begging for the ACLU to keep a careful eye on…

I’d like to know what the facility would look like. Would it be so much better than government-run prisons that some prisoners will want to go to the Christian one because it provides better amenities? Will there be any coercion to go there?

I’d also like to know the recidivism rate for criminals who become Christian while in prison and are later released. Are they really better off afterwards?

Maybe this is one issue atheists don’t have to worry about. We make up only a tiny fraction (less than 1%) of the prison population to begin with, according to 1997 data.

(Thanks to Charlie for the link!)


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  • The Other Tom

    A) Hiring only right wing christians? Wouldn’t that violate the labor laws in all 50 states?

    B) Isn’t this a case of the state making a contract with an establishment of religion, and thus a violation of the first amendment?

    C) Even if the state offers this as merely an option for prisoners, isn’t it violating their rights by offering a religious prison choice for only one religion, not others? Where’s the special jewish prison, and the special muslim prison, and the special pastafarian prison? Somebody tell Bill Donohue they’re discriminating against catholic prisoners!

    I don’t think the ACLU should be “keeping an eye” on this, I think they should be preparing the lawsuit.

  • Those stats you linked to at the end there were pretty interesting, however, they’re pretty old too. Does anyone have anything more recent?

  • Brad

    Why do you have such a problem with Christians providing social services? In this case the prisoners would have to be funded if they were in a state prison, so why shouldn’t the government give that money to the non-government organisation that is taking them out of the state run prison system and placing them in a private one. No-one is forcing them to go there.

  • David D.G.

    “They don’t have to go to church, or Bible study, but they have to participate in the curriculum, which is Christ-centered,” Robinson says.

    Sounds like Jesus Camp — with armed guards. Not a pleasant thought.

    ~David D.G.

  • bill

    at least it’s better than priests running a juvenile detention center…

  • TXatheist

    Another major problem with running prisons with private firms. You see, we taxpayers still fund this thing and we might as well just send the money to jesus.

  • TXatheist

    Meant to say that the problem with funding privately is there is no incentive for these prisons to reduce prisoners. You see, the more prisoners the more taxpayer money they get.

  • TheLoneIguana

    Talk about cruel and unusual punishment.

  • I want to know how participating in a Christ-centered curriculum (whatever that means) is meaningfully different from church or Bible study.

  • “The staff, being all suni Muslims, will see this as a mission,” [founder of Sharia Corrections Inc. Mahmood Al-Jabbar] says. That, he says, is “about changing criminals into citizens.”

    “They don’t have to attend Mosque, or Quoran study, but they have to participate in the curriculum, which is Allah-centered,” Haiffa says.

  • That’s illegal… hello!!

  • Miko

    I don’t know the details in this particular case, but if the commenter is only noting that the government would pay the prison to let them lock people up there, then that’s a pretty weak argument. They’d pay the same to any privately owned and operated prison. As long as the pay scales are the same, it shouldn’t be an issue. Using a public-funded bond to create a privately-owned prison is a more serious problem, perhaps even a worse problem than using public-funded bonds to create government-owned prisons (although given its track record I have to admit I’d feel safer with privately-owned prisons than with government-owned ones).

    A) Hiring only right wing christians? Wouldn’t that violate the labor laws in all 50 states?

    B) Isn’t this a case of the state making a contract with an establishment of religion, and thus a violation of the first amendment?

    C) Even if the state offers this as merely an option for prisoners, isn’t it violating their rights by offering a religious prison choice for only one religion, not others? Where’s the special jewish prison, and the special muslim prison, and the special pastafarian prison? Somebody tell Bill Donohue they’re discriminating against catholic prisoners!

    A) No. If any state did have such a law, it would quickly be struck down as a violation of the Free Association clause of the 1st Amendment.

    B) The state isn’t allowed to establish a religion, but it’s certainly allowed to enter into contracts with religious organizations. If a minister gets a driver’s license, the state has entered into a contract with a religious organization. The problem comes when the state enters into a contract with a religious organization that it wouldn’t make with a secular organization. As long as the state is offering private prison contracts to any interested organization, the fact that one such organization has a religious affiliation is not a de facto Establishment Clause violation, although it’s worth watching to see what happens in practice.

    C) Offering people extra choices can’t possibly violate their rights. It might violate the rights of the taxpayers by forcing them to fund it, but it certainly doesn’t violate the rights of the prisoners (any further than imprisoning them does in the first place). As far as violating the rights of taxpayers, as long as they avoid any issues in (B), they’re probably okay there too (at least in a legal sense; I do realize that any form of taxation at all is a clear violation of the rights of the taxpayers, but I doubt that the courts will begin protecting such rights any time soon).

    I don’t think the ACLU should be “keeping an eye” on this, I think they should be preparing the lawsuit.

    They won’t, though. The ACLU protects civil liberties; they don’t serve as the lapdog of anti-theists.

    Meant to say that the problem with funding privately is there is no incentive for these prisons to reduce prisoners. You see, the more prisoners the more taxpayer money they get.

    As opposed to government-owned prisons, which have strong incentives to reduce the number of prisoners. That must be why prison-guard unions are such strong advocates of laws to re-legalize drugs. *checks empirical data on the subject* Oh wait, scratch that.

    Checks and balances are a good thing. When you let the government take the profit from the prisons, you can expect the government to create all sorts of crazy laws against victimless “crimes,” to make sure lots of people end up in prison. Looking at incarceration rates, this is exactly what is happening in the United States. If prisons are run by private interests, the government loses the incentive to do this, which is a very good thing. Plus, private businesses have different incentive structures that governments, primarily because private businesses need to maintain a certain level of goodwill. Thus, they are accountable to the public in a way that governments aren’t. If a private firm had been running Gitmo, it would have been closed down a long time ago, probably with millions of dollars of restitution paid to those unjustly imprisoned there.

    I’m not advocating privatizing prisons, per se, as I’d much rather get rid of them entirely. And, even if we’re not going to do that, there are certain risks such as Christians trying to monopolize the prison market. But we shouldn’t forget that there are severe dangers in letting the government run the prisons too.

  • Matt

    Brad,
    in one sense they’re providing a service, yes. On the other hand, they’re just evangelizing. It’s similar to a church offering food for the homeless but only in exchange for going to mass or something.
    It would speak louder if a group of christians set up a secular private prison (though I am against private prisons as well) and just helped people however they need to be helped. Considering so many prisoners are christians to begin with, it seems like “re-converting” them is hardly a useful wayto spend time, anyway.

  • Jen

    Does anyone else find it curious that prisons can be privately run? That has never occurred to me. It seems… I don’t know, off. I was under the impression people don’t really have a choice where they serve their prison sentence.

  • Luther

    Does anyone else find it curious that prisons can be privately run?

    It has the same effect as when you outsource anything – like War to Blackwater etc.

    Sadly, we already have a huge prison industrial complex – including just building more and more prisons.

    The effect is you have an industry that profits from not solving the problem, no matter what motions they make. And whatever proof they provide that they are allegedly more efficient than the public alternative.

    If they only made it mandatory – it would serve as a deterrent to me.

  • littlejohn

    Whenever fundamentalist christians are put in charge of anyone’s well-being, someone gets tortured. If this somehow passes Constitutional muster, I can guarantee appalling mistreatment of prisoners at the hands of the pious. It will start with exorcisms.

  • Whenever fundamentalist christians are put in charge of anyone’s well-being, someone gets tortured. If this somehow passes Constitutional muster, I can guarantee appalling mistreatment of prisoners at the hands of the pious. It will start with exorcisms.

    Three words: Stanford Prison Experiment. Add to that prison guards who know with all certainty that they are doing God’s Will and well, they’ll be lucky to have any prisoners alive by the time this is all over.

  • JimboB

    I wonder what brand of Christianity(tm) they’re going to endorse. It reminds me of that joke:


    I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. So I ran over and said “Stop! Don’t do it!”
    “Why shouldn’t I?” he said.
    I said, “Well, there’s so much to live for!”
    He said, “Like what?”
    I said, “Well…are you religious or atheist?”
    He said, “Religious.”
    I said, “Me too! Are you Christian or Buddhist?”
    He said, “Christian.”
    I said, “Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?”
    He said, “Protestant.”
    I said, “Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?”
    He said, “Baptist!”
    I said, “Wow! Me too! Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?”
    He said, “Baptist Church of God!”
    I said, “Me too! Are you original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed
    Baptist Church of God?”
    He said, “Reformed Baptist Church of God!”
    I said, “Me too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1879,
    or Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915?”
    He said, “Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915!”
    I said, “Die, heretic scum”, and pushed him off.

    I mean, seriously, how do you pick the lesson plan? (salvation by faith vs. salvation by works, for example) Or do you make the program so religiously generic that it defeats the underlying purpose? And who picks the inmates? Does a judge decree where the prisoner serves his time? This thing has disaster written all over it.

  • Matt D

    If i was at the end of my “stretch” I’d sign up for sure.

    Life as an inmate could be pretty cruisy if all you had to do was pretend to love Jesus (or am i missing the point altogether?)

    I wonder if any inmates read Hemant’s blog? I assume they get some kind of limited internet access.

    Slightly OT, here in Australia a recent prison program came under public scrutiny. The issue: inmates being used to run a call centre (selling insurance, or something like that – I’m sketchy on the details so I’ll make up what I cant explain…crap, I sound like a Christian!!)

  • ckitching

    The entire idea of privately operated prisons is a little scary to me. It seems to me a little too much like indentured servitude or legalized slavery. I used to wonder why the US imprisoned so many people, but I guess it’s a little more obvious now. 🙁

  • Revyloution

    We make up only a tiny fraction (less than 1%) of the prison population to begin with,

    I doubt that we commit less crimes. I think were just too smart to get caught 🙂

  • Autumnal Harvest

    Miko, your claims (A-C) may mesh well with your libertarian philosophy, but they are all incorrect as claims about actual American law. (A) The freedom of association does not include the right to discriminate on whatever grounds you wish (although organizations can discriminate on the basis of religion for jobs for which religious beliefs are a relevant job requirement, such as priests). (B) States cannot enter into whatever contracts with religious organizations they wish; there are many cases (primarily involving schools) where courts have held that such contracts cause excessive entanglements between the government and the church. (C) Offering people extra choices can indeed violate their rights, both because offering people choices can be coupled with other incentives that make that choice hard for them to reject, and because the way in which those choices are offered may be discriminatory. Perhaps you meant to say that you have to problem with these private prisons, because they mesh well with your libertarian beliefs. However, actual American law is entirely different than what you have claimed.

  • mkb

    Maybe Americans United will take this on. They won a case in the Eighth Circuit against a Christian prison program at an Iowa prison. Many of the same arguments would apply to a private prison.

  • Edmond

    OH let them do it, letthemletthemLETTHEM! This is RIFE with problems waiting to emerge! This is EXACTLY the kind of rope they should be given plenty of. Just waiting for the discrimination lawsuits and abuse allegations is making foam at the mouth!

  • What a brilliant idea. Now we’ll be able to compare recidivism rates for religiously reformed prisoners compared to state reformed prisoners.

  • muggle

    Sigh. Will I ever see a time I’m not forced through my taxes to support other people’s organized religion? Sadly, I don’t expect to see it in my lifetime. I have a dim (very dim) hope that my grandson may in his.

    I hope this gets nipped in the bud because I don’t give a flying fig if it is privately run. It violates rights all around of both the citizenry at large and the prisioners. Failing that, let the lawsuits begin.

    Oh, go to motherjones.com and check out their stories on the prision system if you want a chill up your spine.

    I hate all this privatization. Government should be government, not run by private interests. We are too ruled by corporate interests even when the daily workings of government doesn’t turn the reins over to them.

    Anybody watch the series “Max Headroom” in the ’80’s? Basically, a dystopia where there were only the very poor (living on the streets with TV’s everywhere constantly mandating, brainwashing) and the very rich and the corporations were the government. I loved that show and even then thought I could see that scenario (unfortunately minus Max). Now adays, it seems to be creeping ever closer and closer to reality.

  • TXatheist

    Miko, I”m not sure I see your point. When a group of guys are paid by the prisoner what possible incentive are you giving them to reduce the number of prisoners? If it’s gov’t run I’m not as troubled with providing jobs for guards as I am for giving money to some xians to disperse as they see fit. Goodwill? Yeah, like most texans good will means bread and water, no tv, no rehabilitation costs and death penalty on demand so I’m not following how a private prison has good will. I’m not disagreeing gov’t can do everything great but my view is libertarianism thinks if it makes money then it’s ok and to me that’s not a good mindset.

  • J B Tait

    I am curious about the low relative proportion of atheists incarcerated. Being locked up has racial inequalities, but they could be accounted for by looking at poverty in the communities of origin.

    Has anyone found statistics of how atheism correlates with poverty?

    If there isn’t an external factor, then wouldn’t it make more sense to try to reduce the recidivism rate by converting the convicts OUT of religion?

  • TXatheist

    J B, I agree but a trait or skill and lack of substance addiction are really good for keeping them free. In my talks with the homeless and giving them toiletries I haven’t met an “atheist” but I’ve met some spiritual people. We routinely are told “god bless you” even with the atheist shirt on. I personally think that when they get that low in their life many turn to religion cause they have nothing else to trust/rely on.