CI: Faith, Profits & Prisons

Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Criminal InJustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm CST.

Faith, Profits & Prisons
by Kay Whitlock

Two recent developments spurred the reprise of this post, originally published online in 2010 and now appearing in slightly edited form, here at Critical Mass Progress’ Criminal Injustice series.

Chuck Colson died in late April 2012. Like me, some of you remember him as special counsel to the president in Richard Nixon’s corrupt administration, a ruthless man, known for his devotion to political “dirty tricks,” who facilitated the infamous Watergate scandals that ultimately toppled a presidency. Colson eventually went to (white collar, minimum security, federal) prison for seven months on an obstruction of justice charge. Somewhere along the line, he underwent a religious conversion to a particular form of evangelical Christianity, and after his release, he founded Prison Fellowship Ministries (PFM), which says it operates in 1,367 U.S. prisons, has more than 200,000 prisoners involved in its programs, and now builds on its re-entry (originally supported by then-Texas governor George W. Bush and Texas taxpayers) and recidivism prevention efforts outside of prison. At the time of his death, 1,300 radio stations carried Colson’s daily 4-minute radio commentary.

Rest in peace, Mr. Colson. Some will say he changed from a political operative to a simple man of Christ, and while I have no doubt his religious conversion was real, and that his prison work has mattered to many, I have something else to add to the summing up of his PRM work. In brief: Prison Fellowship Ministries built its base on the fact of mass incarceration, and then began to expand its base to post-prison work, anticipating shifts in public thinking about the disastrous “get tough” policies that led to, support, and sustain mass incarceration in the United States. And the disturbing political subtext to this is seldom explored. But the Colson/PFM work is often cited as lending conservative support to challenges to mass incarceration. This leads us to the second recent political development deserving of our attention.

Last week, Criminal Injustice cited and summarized new research from the Pew Center on the States identifying shifts in public thinking about the disastrous “get tough” policies and practices that led to, support, and sustain mass incarceration in the United States. Polling now suggests that U.S. voters feel too many people are in prison, the country spends too much on imprisonment, and policy changes should be pursued that shift nonviolent offenders to effective and affordable community-based alternatives. With these shifts in public opinion come possible new openings that we can utilize in the ongoing struggle to dismantle mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex that profits from it. And we should seize those openings.

But as we consider next steps forward, a few cautionary notes are in order.


Despite shifts in public thinking about abstractly worded policy issues and choices, criminalizing narratives have not lost their political effectiveness – especially those that target communities of color. The Pew-commissioned polling also affirms that the public retains harsh views about sentences for violent offenders – and the concept of “violent criminal” is firmly conflated in the U.S. imagination with “scary Black people,” and also with immigrants of color. Deployment of fear-soaked, racist criminalizing images and narratives can still trump and be used to manipulate growing popular support for abstract policy proposals.

Just as there are enormous profits to be made through mass incarceration, there are also massive profits to be made from the growth of eventual “decarceration.” It’s a neat trick to control both the supply and demand aspects of the prison/post-prison schema.

Conservative/Right organizations have created far more (politically cohesive) strategies for gaining governmental and public support for providing both prison-based and post-prison services than have liberal/progressive/left organizations.

Political base-building is an unstated, but powerful, component of right-wing faith-based prison and post-prison ministries

And so, even as bipartisan support for alternatives to mass incarceration grows, we should be thinking critically and clearly about capacity the Right already has in place to determine the direction those alternatives will take. of the Right’s “most favored status” in providing both prison and post-prison services. Otherwise, we’ll end up with a kind of theocratic reform that is intolerant of those who do not agree with its diagnosis of problems or the allegiances/perspectives it demands of its participants.

Right-Wing Prison Evangelism

What would you think about a private, Christian-only state prison, administered and staffed only by a certain kind of Christian, that incarcerates only pre-approved Christians, providing intensive Christian programming of a particular kind, and mandating that prisoners slave work their butts off for pathetic wages, often in unsafe working conditions, ultimately releasing most of them into pre-approved Christian "after care/post-release" programs?

That's the dream of Bill Robinson, a founder of Corrections Concepts, Inc. and an early supporter of then-Texas governor George W. Bush's successful (but more modest) mid-1990s effort to,
Sounds pretty special, doesn't it?

It also sounds somehow, kind of...well...familiar. White Christian patriarchs wielding absolute power over every minute in the lives of a dependent group of people (the overwhelming majority of local, state, and federal prisoners are people of color) who work to produce profit primarily for...well...white, predominantly Christian patriarchs. Hmmmm...

Regrettably, the United States is a lot closer to this and similar scenarios than you might like to think. But in the world of the growing Christian Corrections industry, this isn't about control, labor and profit at all. It's about religious values, "moral rehabilitation" and "faith and character-based" imprisonment among "like-minded inmates." It's about "creating safety" within the structurally violent world of prisons, ending recidivism, and providing positive outcomes for the more than 2 million people incarcerated in U.S. penal institutions. And it's about the illusion of "cutting costs" through privatization.

Many of the same political interests that pushed "get tough on crime" policies from the 1970s through the 1990s – the very policies that fueled mass incarceration - now offer profitable, faith-based responses to mass incarceration. It's a neat little circular system that both creates the market and provides goods to it. Within it, preferential treatment is given to a particular brand of Christianity that is carefully framed as"non-denominational" and "voluntary."

And it's a system that never addresses the structural racism, economic, and other forms of violence that are foundational to prisons in the United States, but rather frames the problem as individual deficits of faith, character, and values.

In a grimly fascinating twist on the business of profiting from mass incarceration, faith-based politics and prison profiteering have become big business in the United States over the past 20 years. Thanks in large measure to convicted Watergate conspirator Chuck Colson, now refashioned as a conservative leader and crusader for faith-based prison ministries, George W. Bush, Jeb Bush, and the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA),"faith" is now a thriving niche market in prison privatization.

And, unless we develop some new strategies and organize like hell to turn this train around, faith-based prison privatization is on track to become the preferred approach to detention.

Religious folk have always had an interest in prisons – in fact, religious reformers created them in the United States, and ministering to incarcerated people is a historic religious responsibility. But the programs/practices described here are not just about the religious freedom and well-being of individuals. They are also about the institutionalization and granting of "most favored" status to a certain kind of highly politicized, conservative/right-wing Christianity.

Full Disclosure:
I am not a religious cynic, but rather a longtime Buddhist practitioner and activist with extensive experience in working in both ecumenical Christian and interfaith arenas. I was raised as a Christian, and for many years, I served in various capacities for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker organization devoted to peace, human rights, and social and economic justice. I assume that prisoners have and should have the right to freedom of spiritual/religious expression, solace, and comfort. But no religion should be institutionally favored. Nor, I believe, should anyone – including faith groups – profit from the incarceration of fellow human beings.


In 1996, the (Texas) Governor’s Advisory Task Force on Faith-Based Community Service Groups, appointed by George W. Bush, issued a report, Faith in Action...A New Vision for Church-State Cooperation in Texas (pdf download), that identified pressing social problems, attacked “today’s welfare system” as a response to them, and announced that government had a key role to play as an “enabler” of faith-based groups who could respond more effectively to those problems.

In identifying a presumptive need for faith-based correctional facilities, and urging the state to permit faith-based organizations to play a much more significant role in state corrections and prisoner rehabilitation, the report asserted religion – not racial, gender, and economic justice – as the antidote to 'communities imprisoned by violence and fear." While care was taken to use neutral/generic terms – "faith-based" and "religious," only Christian initiatives, including Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship, were cited as examples of desirable programming.

The first such program instituted through a contract with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (pdf link) was the InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI), a "Christ-centered, Bible-based" Prison Fellowship Ministries pre-release program, implemented at the Carol Vance Unit in Richmond, Texas. Today, at least a dozen “faith dorms” exist, most of them serving men in minimum and medium security facilities.

Texas has played a singular role in the growth of prison privatization generally, and today the state helps support an ambitious private prison industry through contracts with several companies, including Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation’s largest supplier of private prison services, the GEO Group), the Cornell Company (now subsumed within GEO), and others.

Now, with Texas blazing a trail into faith-based imprisonment, new opportunities opened up to combine new, aggressive forms of Christian Right activism with prison privatization. Florida was next up.

During his tenure as governor of Florida, Jeb Bush accelerated the push, converting a 750-bed medium security men's facility, Lawtey, into a "faith and character-based institution" (an FCBI, in the new parlance), launching its new incarnation on Christmas Eve, 2003. Today, there are 4 fully-dedicated FCBI facilities and eight "faith and self-improvement dorms." A special affiliate program, Faith-Based Transitional Housing Substance Abuse Programs provides support to released offenders (under certain circumstances; all the affiliates are politically conservative, evangelical or fundamentalist Christian groups.

Other states – Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas, Minnesota, Tennessee, New Mexico, Iowa, and more – have put some form of intensified faith-based programming in place in selected prisons. There is excited talk about extending the concepts to juvenile detention facilities.

Do they work? Depends on how you're looking at it – and from what vantage point. Not surprisingly, cohesive faith-based housing units with a variety of programs and opportunities for prisoners appear to have significantly fewer disciplinary problems - and less conflict makes for less stress for everyone. But shouldn't a wide variety of supportive programs and services be available to all prisoners, without regard to residency in a special faith-based unit? Shouldn't all prisoners be able to count on being safe and having access to meaningful rehabilitation programs?

Do they reduce recidivism? The programs say the answer is a resounding "yes!" But look a little deeper, and that's not necessarily true. For example, in 2003, Mark A.R. Kleinman offered an analysis of the misuse and manipulation of data in an evaluation of Colson's InnerChange program in Slate to show it had achieved remarkable results. The Urban Institute's 2007 evaluation of Florida experience (funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation that strongly supports faith-based involvement in the public arena,including prison-related work) suggested that any benefit in recidivism rates was very small at 6 months for men in one institution, but non-existent for anyone at 12 months. The results of the Penn study reviewed by Kleinman are the product of "selection" bias also known as "creaming" or "cooking the books" - that is, focusing on the most successful "graduates" who continued with the program after release and got/kept a job while ignoring less successful participants. The Urban Institute evaluation also notes the possibility of "creaming" as a factor in results. Today, the Florida Department of Corrections simply says they don't know yet how recidivism might be affected, or if it is.

God & Warden Cain at Angola
What's wrong with the two pictures below?

While you're preparing your answer, let's take a quick glance at Angola Prison in Lousiana, filled primarily with black prisoners, most of whom are incarcerated for life with no hope of parole, presided over by Mr. Man Himself, Warden Burl Cain, who has achieved celebrity/legendary status as a guy who is a Christian, and runs himself a Christian prison.

The comforting, celebrity-like buzz, often repeated by mainstream media - is that his assertive, but generous, brand of Christianity has transformed Angola from a brutal, black hellhole into a shining beacon of Christ-like peace (the establishment of 18 Christian chapels on the grounds) – a peace achieved through equal measures of gospel and discipline (Angola abuses trains guard dogs to be vicious). Prisoners can even earn a college degree.

But journalist James Ridgeway has a different take:

There’s another side to this story, of course, and it’s a whole lot grimmer than the [mainstream media] would suggest. More than 90 percent of the 5,200 men Angola will die there, thanks to the state’s harsh sentencing policies. Much of the work on the 18,000-acre former slave plantation consists of backbreaking labor in the cotton, corn, and soybean fields, presided over by armed guards on horseback. Some inmates do not work at all because they are kept in isolation in their cells, in the prison’s notorious Camp J disciplinary unit or in long-term solitary confinement. (Among Angola’s most widely known prisoners are former Black Panthers Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, members of the Angola 3, who have been in solitary for more than 37 years.)

An inmate’s fate at Angola depends upon how he measures up to the warden’s standards, which are rooted firmly in his personal religious dogma.

And the only way for prisoners to get that college degree is to study Christian Ministry through the New Orleans Baptist Seminary.


Just as a particular kind of politically and socially conservative/Right Christianity is lifted up, so too are the religious freedoms of other prisoners and former prisoners denied.

American Indians Denied Religious Freedom

"Through my personal experience, I have observed the denial of American Indians to engage in the practice of their traditional religious, cultural and spiritual ceremonies and beliefs throughout the United States Prison System. The extreme racism and discrimination toward religious and spiritual beliefs and practices has made it very difficult for the Native inmates to practice and participate in traditional ceremonial practices in a consistent manner. I base my knowledge and experience on the visits to ninety-six (96) state and federal correctional facilities where I have provided spiritual counseling to approximately two thousand Native American male and female inmates. These facilities are classified at minimum, medium, and maximum security facilities including Death Row." – Lenny Foster, Program Supervisor for the Navajo Nations Corrections Project

Islamophobia Alive and Well in World of Prisons

While Muslims have made some strides toward free exercise of religion in U.S. jails and prisons (see here), a post-9/11 wave of demonizing discourse frames followers of Islam as terrorists and violent enemies of Christianity – in prisons, as well as in the larger U.S. and the world. Prisons are framed as "recruiting grounds" for terrorists (see here, here, and here); this in turn justifies differential and discriminatory treatment.

Are Any of the Programs Interfaith? Can Atheists, Agnostics and Other Non-Religious People Participate?

Muslims, Jews, American Indians and other indigenous peoples who practice traditional spiritualities, Santeria, Hindus, Rastafarians, Buddhists, Wiccans, and others who are not Christian simply do not have equal access to the facilities and resources that support certain kinds of evangelical and fundamentalist Christian initiatives. Rhetorical winks and nods are given to the idea, but it has no systemic reality. The same is true for Christians who do not share the particular evangelical or fundamentalist perspective of those Christians who have greater systemic access to prisons and jails.

Florida's FCBI prisons and faith-based/self-improvement dorms claim to make an effort to do so, but I was unable to find reliable information on how Jews, Muslims, and others have experienced these facilities. A 2007 evaluation of the Florida programs largely skirted the issue, offering vague assurances that all was well. The Florida Department of Corrections reports that Christians are the overwhelming majority of participants in the faith-based programs.

In theory, the programs also serve non-religious people, and Florida asserts that it does have secular self-improvement opportunities that are the equivalent of faith-based initiatives. But the Urban Institute report,momentarily broke through its own vague reassurances about the virtue of the programs to suggest that such offerings are not evenly available to non-religious people and timidly proposed that this aspect of work be strengthened. The Urban Institute Report also noted the strong influence volunteers –overwhelmingly faith-based - have on determining availability of various program options and suggested – in a rhetorical whisper – that this be examined.

Christian Domination of Faith-Based Prison Landscape

Noting that "Christians still dominate the landscape of prison chaplaincy," and that "inmates are regularly subjected to subtle and active forms of proselytizing by dominant faith groups," Jewish Chaplain Gary Friedman says that the dramatic increases in prison populations also have increased the religious diversity of inmates. Prisoner living units operated in accordance with faith-based principles hold promise, he says, but also are "ripe for abuse" and that while "most of these programs profess to be open to inmates of various faiths and 'interfaith'in nature, many are actually operated out of a single faith contingent's mission and are proselytizing machines." This despite the fact that proselytizing is officially discouraged or disallowed in many of today's faith-based programs.

Hostile Environments for Queers

The major faith-based players in the private prison industry not only fail to support LGBT struggle for rights and recognition; they outright condemn it. Colson's Prison Fellowship, for example, produces a variety of resources for prisoners and their families, including How I Climbed Out of the Gay Lifestyls: A Christian Perspective on Homosexuality.

The Urban Institute's 2007 evaluation of Florida faith-based prisons and other initiatives specifically mentions homophobia directed at persons known or perceived to be gay, but makes no suggestion for corrective action.


Proponents of faith-based prison privatization love to say that these efforts cost the state nothing; that they rely on Christian charity, generosity, and volunteerism, so there is no church/state conflict and no tax dollars go to support religion. And yes, many people do volunteer to help with these programs.

But it's disingenuous, at best, to suggest that taxpayers aren't subsidizing these programs. Of course we are – sometimes directly because our tax dollars pay state contracts with CCA and other private prison corporations, and often indirectly, through privileged – sometimes exclusive – access to prisoners and prison facilities.

No Church/State Conflict? No Cost to Taxpayers?

In June 2006, Judge Robert Pratt, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa, ruled in favor of a legal challenge to Colson's InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI) at the Newton Correctional Facility. Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) brought suit, asserting that the program violated the Establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Pratt ordered that the program be ended and that IFI repay Iowa more than $1.5 million received in government funds to operate the program. He found that the program constituted an unconstitutional use of taxpayer money for religious indoctrination, and that no adequate safeguards were or could be put in place to prevent this. The level of this religious indoctrination, supported by state funds, was "extraordinary."

He also found that "For all practical purposes, the state has literally established an Evangelical Christian congregation within the walls of one of its penal institutions, giving the leaders of that congregation...authority to control the spiritual, emotional, and physical lives of hundreds of Iowa inmates."

Source: New York Times here and here.


It will be extraordinarily difficult to change the systemic infusion of particular forms of Christianity and intensive faith-based programming in U.S. prisons and jails. Those programs are deeply embedded in private prison business and enjoy powerful political support. The case-by-case legal challenges to them are important, but do not – so far – change institutional realities. Public challenges to them are often produce loud, sustained, well-organized claims that "Christians" are being victimized within a Godless and amoral society. We are cast as – and often seem – churlish and insensitive to prisoner rights to freedom of religious expression. The Christian prison profiteers insist it's all voluntary, and for a few, it may seem that way. But is it possible for prisoners to truly give voluntary consent to much of anything when – as Warden Burl Cain so powerfully illustrates – there is often a heavy price to be paid for saying "no" to prison authorities? Or when the price of saying "no" is to be denied access to certain services and supports or to be singled out as different and unworthy by fellow prisoners?

Yet we must fight. But to fight effectively, we have to recognize this is a long-term struggle, and we must commit to it for the long haul. We've been on the defensive and need to shed that tepid posture. At the same time we must develop more powerful frames for talking about and organizing resistance to this theocratic trend - without insulting or demeaning millions of people who are religious or have a spiritual practice who do or potentially will agree with us. Those of us for whom a spiritual practice is important must be willing to step out with particular boldness into this storm. And we must fight for the rights of people to reject religion as strongly as we fight for freedom of religious expression.

As we do, it will become obvious that to tackle this challenge takes us into the very heart of structural white supremacy and violence - racial, economic, gendered, sexual, religious – historically embedded in the institution of the prison.

At its core, this is a fight for real democracy. We'll lose many immediate battles, but if we hang in, we will win the larger struggle. It often seems so discouraging, but there are always little breakthroughs that help shine a light away from coercion and privilege toward a more just, compassionate, and pluralistic future.

Remember Bill Robinson and his all-Christian, all the time private prison, Habilitation House? Well, after several years, he's still trying to sell it to folks in Oklahoma, or anywhere else he can find support. Wherever he goes, those plucky folks at Americans United just as regularly send letters to government officials warning them that should they choose to go ahead, they will find themselves teetering on the edge of a perilous legal abyss. But a number of communities have turned him down – and in Leonard, Texas, in 2008, the city council unanimously opposed Robinson's proposal, their action supported with cheers and applause by town residents who showed up in significant numbers to ensure that they did.

Leonard, Texas. Right in the heart of a state whose government earlier transformed it into a Showcase of Prison Privatization.

† © Copyright 2010-2012, Nancy A. Heitzeg, Kay Whitlock, and Seeta Persaud of CMP. All rights reserved. All articles and posts published by Criminal Injustice may not be distributed, re-published or cross-posted in any format, including print or electronic format, without express and explicit written permission from the copyright holders, including CI editors (Nancy Heitzeg and Kay Whitlock) and

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