A Prison Seminary? September 13, 2010

A Prison Seminary?

Here’s a church/state separation problem waiting to explode.

A maximum-security prison in Texas will soon be the home of a religious seminary, “a first-of-its-kind program that authorities hope could eventually make the entire prison system less violent.”

They say the program wouldn’t be paid for with taxpayer money, but aren’t taxpayers paying for the prison costs as a whole, anyway? I don’t know how that works, but I’m sure some of you do.

Texas has religious programs at all of its 112 state prisons and has faith-based programs and initiatives involving more than 2,700 convicts at 24 of them — most for felons who are about to finish their sentences.

The largest is the InnerChange Freedom Initiative at the Vance Unit southwest of Houston, which has 378 participants and opened in March 1997, prison officials said.

The issue here doesn’t even have to be about the funding. It’s about a particular religious belief being taught to prisoners. More importantly, what if a prisoner doesn’t want to participate? What’s the punishment for not wanting to do this? Or for speaking out against it? There may not be a formal punishment, but I’m sure there are ways around that.

Joe Zamecki, the Texas State Director of American Atheists tells me in an email that he’s very concerned:

… Prisoners don’t need to be lied to. Our government should never be the source of clergymen, and this prison seminary idea seems like a cheap attempt to control a state prison’s inmates for religion, for the purpose of spreading religion. Something the Texas state government shouldn’t be trying to do.

I’m with Joe.

The sad thing is I think the prisoners could probably use the guidance and positive role models, which I think this program could provide them.

But you don’t need religion or the Bible and all the falsehoods that come with them in order to provide those benefits.

If the people at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary sponsoring this program cared about the prisoners, they could find a way to help these people without bringing religion into it. But they seem to be more concerned about spreading their religious agenda via government-run prisons.

I don’t know how that’s legal…

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  • Judith Bandsma

    Seems like religion is relying heavily on ‘captive’ audiences…the military and now the prisons. We know military members are punished for not attending ‘services’ and that’s a lot more open than what happens behind prison walls.

  • mouse

    There’s also the issue of inmates who are in mandatory drug counseling programs having access to 12 steps and nothing but. An article I read some years back detailed a non-violent offender (he was sent down for selling weed to his friends) who was trying to get other forms of drug counseling introduced into the prison he was in because he was an atheist and the person running the meetings very much took the religious interpretation of the 12 step program. Not sure what ever happened with that as there was no media follow up.

  • EllenBeth Wachs

    Florida has 7 FAITH-based prisons. I met with the chaplain and asst warden at one and questioned them extensively on the requirements of entering these prisons as they are highly sought after.

    The stated and written entry requirements are neutral (anyone can apply) but when probing further it is obvious that ONLY christians are granted entry into these prisons. I was told a wiccan was in the facility once for 2 weeks but requested a transfer out but they wouldn’t tell me why b/c of confidentiality concerns.

    I was attempting to bring secular recovery programs to the prisons and in the process discovered much larger problems, of course, not the least of which was simply the mere fact of the existence of “faith-based” prisons.

    I am currently doing FOIA requests on the statistics and looking into litigation for both church/state violation and the No Aid provision under the Florida Constitution

  • Robert Tobin

    The members of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and all Christian pastors should be locked up in the slammer for taking money from people under fasle pretences being that there is a “god” and a “Supernatural” and the “Holy” Bible is true when it is the worst book of fiction ever written.

  • I wonder how the popular press would react if this were an Islamic initiative? I imagine that they would claim that such attempts were designed to convert and produce an increase in the number of Muslims on our streets. That’s exactly how I feel about this but change Islam and Muslim to Christian.

    I’ve no objection to prisoners having and exercising a faith and if it helps them to stay honest and productive when they leave prison then so much the better but it worries me that someone’s integrity can be linked to their religious beliefs. If someone’s faith fails then do they lose that incentive to be good? Better surely to build their integrity on a stronger foundation.

  • Rollingforest

    Off topic but important. I’m sure we’ve all noticed how Google ads at the top of the main screen is almost always religious in nature because they want to convert us atheists. But they don’t have to pay a dime unless we click on it. So I think everyone on this blog should click on the ads as much as possible and force them to pay if they want to harass us.

  • Kevin S.

    Are we surprised that a state which is re-writing history would blatantly ignore the First Amendment?

  • Gaylon Crawford

    I have personal experience as a newly released arkansas prisoer ,and I can tell you that inmates who take part in inner change get loads of perks,and access to more education with computers.They also get special visits from their families etc.In their post release drug treatment programs they .(the councilers)push spiritual principles during group therapy even though none of the curriculum is faith based.They also have a jaycee program that allows inmates to get alot of extra priveledges,but you must first recite the jaycee creed in which you must profess a belief in god.Religious discrimination is ubiquitous in the Arkansas prison system.The muslims are allowed one less day of work duty for jumuah prayer every friday.Much pressure to become religious indeed.

  • Technically, I’m not sure this counts as a violation of church and state, since as I understand it, prisons in the US are privately operated.

    On the other hand, according to the article, the model for the program was Angola in Louisiana, a prison that by all accounts resembles an Antebellum cotton plantation more than anything else. So, yeah, almost certainly a terrible idea.

  • littlejohn

    All prisoners claim to “find god.” It impresses parole boards.
    Imagine how many will join the seminary to practically guarantee parole.

  • Jonas

    I think part of it is that declaring oneself ‘Christian’ implies a proper morality, and that’s of course because the country is seen as ‘mostly Christian’
    — No one questions that further —

  • Bryan Rosander

    I’m a Christian who reads your blog.

    Anyway, I have an uncle who is a chaplain in the military and have had a prison chaplain speak at my Church several times, the last time just a few weeks ago.

    The primary reason for these services is that Christians in prison or the military need access to religious services. Usually their responsibilities include being able to at least acquire religious services for anyone who needs it. I’m not sure how equivalent services for atheists and non-religious people are handled.

    I think that all prisons are supposed to have this service but it is largely done on a volunteer basis and there are still a lot of prison’s without one. For prisons that do get one, most of the person’s time is tied up in administrative work and they don’t have much time for meeting with inmates.

    The prison chaplain who spoke at my church offers supplemental services to the normal prison chaplain. He spends his time meeting with inmates and providing counseling. He serves a couple of prisons and is supported entirely through personal donations.

    I’m not sure of the constitutional issues here, but think that denying religious services might be just as serious as providing “state sponsored religion”. Chaplains in the military are probably the more serious issue, as they receive federal funding.

    Also, holding religious services on state property seems to have some precedence in school clubs. There are a lot of churches that meet on school property, but they usually rent it.

  • If the people at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary[insert religious organization] sponsoring this program cared about the prisoners [, homeless, addicts, pregnant teens, etc.], they could find a way to help these people without bringing religion into it. But they seem to be more concerned about spreading their religious agenda via government-run prisons[name your faith-based program].

    An asute observation that applies to virtually every faith-based program out there.

  • Lost Left Coaster

    I don’t have a problem with religious programming inside of prisons, as long as all constitutional requirements are met, of course. So that means that state money shouldn’t pay for the programs, participation should be fully voluntary, and prisoners shouldn’t receive special privileges for being associated with the program.

    If secularists want prisoners to have access to secular programs, then we should develop some! I’ve heard of such programs taking place, which is great, and there needs to be more. A lot of prisoners are doing what we might call soul searching while they’re doing time, and access to new information is important for them and could have a lot of influence in their lives. It’s a good time to do outreach.

  • Secular Stu

    I’m a Christian who reads your blog.

    I’m an atheist who reads this blog, and I largely agree with you. If prisoners are allowed access to any sort of education, they should also be allowed to be educated as ministers.

    Granted, I’m not a fan of the spread of religion, but they have every right to do this. And there’s no extra cost to the taxpayer. This is about as unobjectionable as it gets.

  • Richard P.

    Maybe there just recruiting new pastors for their churches. Apparently, there are a bunch of people in prison that have a way with children. If you look at how many get caught for indecent acts, you would have to think this has been going on for some time now.

    Of course it could be that the church just naturally attracts slug worms pedophiles too. It must just make it handier to find them when there all in one place.

  • Ed

    It’s about a particular religious belief being taught to prisoners. More importantly, what if a prisoner doesn’t want to participate? What’s the punishment for not wanting to do this?

    I don’t see anything in the link suggesting this is anything other than another optional educational program for inmates. I volunteer in a few state prisons and from what I have seen normally there are volunteer based programs (religious, 12 step, yoga, basic literacy etc) and then there are also state paid for and sponsored programs administered and run by community colleges or other state schools(GED, associates degree etc). Both types of programs are entirely optional (although there is an incentive to participate, for example inmates may earn a sentence reduction for earning a degree). I imagine this seminary program is the same, just offered, administered and funded through private sources. The program doesn’t sound like anything much different than the type written about here. What’s the fuss?

  • JimG

    On the other hand, letting prisoners train as preachers would save time. If they annouce plans to become televangelists, the state can just extend their sentences before they rip people off.

  • Miko

    You don’t need religion to provide positive benefits, but you don’t need to not have religion to provide them either. As long as it’s voluntary, I see no problem with it. Seeing as inmates don’t really have the choice to go to a church, it makes sense to let the church come to them. The real state/church violation would be denying them this right.


    Technically, I’m not sure this counts as a violation of church and state, since as I understand it, prisons in the US are privately operated.

    First off, no: most prisons aren’t privately operated (of the 2.3 million prisoners in the US, less than 100,000 are in private prisons). Second off, it wouldn’t matter if they were. The government isn’t allowed to hire someone to violate your rights any more than they’re allowed to do it themselves.

  • jen

    What’s the fuss?

    Partly the fact that so few people question whether Baptists (or any other mainline Christian denomination) should be allowed this kind of access. If it were another religion, particularly Islam, wouldn’t there be concern about the prison (on behalf of the state) appearing to give support to this one particular religion?

    It sounds like this particular group of convicts won’t be seeing the outside of the prison system for a long time, and the point of this program is to create in-the-prison ministers who can and will go to other prisons and other prisoners and “carry the message”. So the system is hoping that adding faith – this particular faith – to the prison system will lead to better prisoners and less difficulty keeping the prisons in line. The fact that they do so by endorsing one particular faith (despite the First Amendment) apparently doesn’t matter to them, most likely because they are members of this denomination or one close enough to it to make no difference. And whether other prisoners – the ones who didn’t sign up for this program – want to be preached to by their cellmates is of no concern to the people in charge, and completely irrelevant to the people who created/run this program.

    Those of us who have no particular faith that being a member (or minister) of this faith will make anyone a better person in the long run have more concern about the inroads against the separation of church and state.

  • If the secular purpose is to reduce violence, wouldn’t it make more sense to train them all in Jainism?

  • Ed

    Jen, I don’t know anything about the program in TX but the ACLU had this to say about the one it is based on at Angola

    The American Civil Liberties Union has gone to court several times over religious matters at Angola, but the seminary program is not one of them.

    “We are certainly not opposed to the offering of educational opportunities,” said Marjorie Esman, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana. “The problem is if it is limited to a specific group.”


    While perhaps the prison in TX (or the reporters covering the story) have been a little lacking in prudence in their enthusiasm/spin for the program, I don’t see the offering of an educational program, even a religious based one, problematic if it is not compulsory, tax payer funded or discriminatory.

    Assuming the program is indeed the same as the one at Angola, where is the first amendment violation? Where is the cause for upset and protest?

  • walkamungus

    I’m intrigued about how Baptists plan to implement a nondenominational [yet Christian] ministerial training program…

    Texas corrections has far worse problems than this program: Pick up Robert Perkinson’s “Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire” if you want a fascinating and compelling read. Sometimes Perkinson’s a bit liberal-preachy, but he’s a historian and his extensively documented facts speak for themselves.

    The article says that a program like this has cut down on violence at Angola in Louisiana. If you were an imprisoned Texas atheist, would you trade an increase in religion for a reduction in violence? I sure would.

  • bigjohn756

    Well, I think that this good! Now, Instead of shiving one another these Christian prisoners can crucify each other.

  • Bryan Rosander

    Non-denominational doesn’t necessarily mean they open themselves up to any belief. It just means that they aren’t holding themselves accountable to any denomination.

    The Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS) describes itself as being free from denominational control. They still have a very distinct theological reputation. Meanwhile, they can serve Reformed Baptist, Presbyterian, and other congregations.

  • Demonhype


    Thanks for taking care of that. I am so fucking tired of seeing the government subcontract civil rights violations out to corporations and then have some numb-nuts (I’m looking at you, brother’s girlfriend!) tell you with a cross-eyed look, “but it’s a PRIVATE business, they can do WHATEVER THEY LIKE!” Um. No. They can’t.

    You want one example? Equal opportunity laws. Just try having a policy of hiring only blacks or only people of one religion or another and see how far you get.

    Whenever someone gives me the “PRIVATE businss” BS, I just have to hold myself back from breaking their nose with my fist. Hey, I’m a PRIVATE citizen talking to you here in my PRIVATE home, so if I want to bust your nose or skin you alive, I have a right to it. “Sorry, PRIVATE business, talk to the hand!”

    This mantra of “PRIVATE business”, as if that ends the debate, is nothing more than a cover for rich powerful assholes in both government and corporate America (fascism, anyone?) to undermine the Bill of Rights in any way they can manage and backdoor their own power in as rule of law. Private, my ass. Why is it that my rights as a private citizen are supposed to be negated by your privilege as a private obscenely wealthy business?

    Also, this crap about this shit being voluntary? Also a cover. They have to say it and uphold it. And I’m sure there are well-meaning Christians who really believe that because they really want to believe it, but guess what? Until I became an atheist, I never realized how much hatred and contempt there is for atheism or how prevalent it is. You never see what’s going on until it directly affects you–or unless you make a real effort to look at things clearly.

    I used to think things were peachy keen for black people, for example, but then I’m white and I dont’ have to contend with what they have to contend with. Once I sat down and did some real reading and real listening, I found out differently. It doesn’t help to go to the black person or atheist and say “well, it’s not really that bad for you, see, it says so right here in this handbook that this or that is voluntary or that racial discrimination is wrong, so therefore this isn’t happening the way you’re actually telling me.” Yes, that’s what the rules actually say, but how it plays out in reality isn’t always how it says in the rulebook. Yes, they aren’t supposed to coerce faith in prisons, but it is happening. Yes, they aren’t supposed to let race bias them in hiring but it still happens.

    I guess I took Greta Christina’s advice to heart: stop telling the oppressed or minority group how you think it is and listen to what they are saying, rather than tying yourself up in a self-affirming loop into which no new information can enter. Forget the “supposed to” speech and listen to the people on the other side of the tape tell you what their experience is.

    Let me say this–if atheists were being treated like the Christians are right now, and vice versa, you’d see the problem right away. Though it’s possible you’d be more upset that a Christian is being discriminated against rather than that discrimination is happening, whereas I’m sure most atheists would be just as pissed if people were receiving favoritism and rewards and special treatment for deconversion to atheism as well as conversion to any faith.

    That was one thing that struck me about atheists before I was one: That with atheists, the central issue is the injustice, whereas with most believers in religion or general woo that I knew, the central issue was Who was doing the injustice to Who, and if their own faction was the perpetrating Who they were all but blind to the injustice. That had a big effect on me, because even then I understood that it’s the injustice itself that should take center stage, and only the atheists seemed to understand this. I’d argue myself hoarse with fellow believers over these same issues, and that’s one of the things that made me come to the conclusion that religious belief or the idea that unevidenced belief of any kind is superior to fact was a major blinder to truth and justice in the world.

    I’m also disturbed at this crap about enforcing religion to reduce violence, as if faith is intrinsically linked to morality (which it is not). But even stranger is the contradiction–in the prison, they hope that increased faith will reduce violence, but in the military they are trying to use the faith-based environment to rally up violence. So is faith something that reduces or enhances violence? If faith is a violence-reducer, why are we enforcing it in the military? Or is this just the usual tripe of believers who simply attribute all things good and happy and nice and sparkly to their own favorite fable, no matter how contradictory it is? “Faith will make you peaceful and gentle and non-violent, also it will make you the Ultimate Warrior!”

    Anyway, a little reading of a history book (non-revisionist, of course) will show conclusively that increases in religious faith do not result in less violence. Quite the opposite, in fact.

  • muggle

    Right on, Demonhype. Absolutely.

    This wouldn’t be a problem without coercion but, man, does anyone really believe there will be no retaliation for not at the very least not welcoming the new ministers of gawd amongst your fellow inmates. Yeah, right. Just try telling Bubba in for two counts of manslaughter that you’re not interested in his message of god’s love. Good luck with that. Please try to overlook that slow smile and remark about having to put the fear of god in you.

    It’d be funny if it didn’t have such eerie implications. Like admitting they have to resort to criminals to preach the word of gawd, as if there’s some inherent dishonesty in that.

  • Secular Stu

    At least as far as the Roman Catholic Church goes, they should be making convicts out of priests instead of vice versa.

  • Here is a post of Pastor John Piper’s Question and Answer at Angola State Prison. A great session between a world-renowned pastor and inmates, many of whom at serving out maximum sentences.


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