This blog post was written by Brian Bensimon, a Right on Crime research associate.

Prisoners struggling with personal transformation and restoration through conventional prison programming may find solace in faith-based corrections programming. Effective criminal justice reform requires respect for the dignity of all people and a successful means towards rehabilitation. Faith-based corrections programming offers a means towards the goal of rehabilitation and personal restoration, while possibly decreasing overall recidivism for offenders.

There is evidence to suggest that faith-based programming significantly reduces recidivism. Prison Fellowship, the nation’s largest Christian non-profit serving prisoners, first launched the InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI) in a Texas Prison in 1997. The IFI program in Texas yielded encouraging results. According to a study by the Texas Policy Council, only 8% of the participants returned to prison within two years compared with the 20% of offenders who were eligible for the program but elected not to participate.

The  (PEP), which began in Texas in 2004, also offers faith-based and values-based correctional programming. The program describes itself as “faith-driven” and offers both business training and character assessments to prisoners, ultimately asking the prisoners to produce a business plan for future re-entry. According to an assessment of the program conducted by Baylor University, PEP yielded a 6.9% rate of recidivism over 3 years. A similar comparison group consisting of accepted PEP applicants who did not participate resulted in a 24.0% rate of recidivism over 3 years. It is estimated that the Prison Entrepeneurship Program “saves the state $447,621 in incarceration costs in the first year, and $343,823 annually for subsequent years.”

Expanding prison visitation from faith leaders might also effectively reduce recidivism. A study conducted by the Minnesota Department of Corrections indicated that not only did visitation significantly reduce recidivism, but that visitation from clergy in particular was especially effective. Visits from clergy lowered the rate of re-conviction by 24%. Given that clergy often help individuals during difficult circumstances, it is no surprise that clergy visitation proved effective in significantly reducing recidivism.

Some constitutional roadblocks to faith-based programming have emerged. In Americans United for Separation of Church and State vs. Prison Fellowship Ministries, a 2006 case, an Iowa district court declared the InnerChange Freedom Initiative unconstitutional on first amendment establishment clause grounds. Notably, the Court critiqued one characteristic of the program’s operation:

“In this case, there was no genuine and independent private choice. The inmate could direct the aid only to InnerChange. The legislative appropriation could not be directed to a secular program, or to general prison programs.”

This constitutional roadblock is not crippling for faith-based correctional programming. The precedent could change as greater empirical research on the relationship between faith-based programming and re-incarceration develops. As it currently stands, faith-based programs will need to continue accepting participants regardless of denomination and operate on an opt-in basis. In addition, future programs will face fewer constitutional challenges if there are comparable secular programs available or if a voucher-like program for prisoners materializes.

Faith-based programming represents a unique way for prisoners to transform at a personal level and to develop the necessary qualities towards full restoration. If further explored, it is hopeful that faith-based programming will help lower recidivism, provide prisoners with important life skills, and help prisoners achieve full rehabilitation.

Photo Credit: Remnant Fellowship Prison Ministry