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Prisons, Profits, and Prophets
The nation's largest private prison corporation joins
forces with conservative faith-based ministries

by Bill Berkowitz
September 4, 2004

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In an era where the Bush administration touts faith-based organizations as engines of individual and social transformation, and is actively recruiting and funding religious organizations to deliver a bevy of social services, it isn't surprising that a high-powered politically-savvy corporation wants in on the action. The Corrections Corporation of America, the nation's largest owner and operator of private prisons, is trucking out a new product line with a little help from its fundamentalist friends: Prison Conversions to Christ.

Over the past few years, high-profile prison conversions to Christ – like Carla Faye Tucker and David Berkowitz (no relation), also known as the "Son of Sam" ? captured the attention of fundamentalist Chrisstian leaders and the mainstream media.*

While high-profile prison conversions may play well in the media, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) is casting its lot with your everyday prisoner, entering into partnerships with several Christian fundamentalist evangelical organizations that are increasingly active inside America's prisons.

According to company records, the Nashville, Tenn.-based company is the sixth largest corrections system in the nation, behind only the Federal government and four states. CCA operates 65 facilities, including 38 company-owned facilities, with a total design capacity of approximately 66,000 beds in 20 states and the District of Columbia.

In late March, CCA announced it was collaborating with the Chicago-based Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP), a Christian-based outfit founded and headed by the controversial and charismatic Bill Gothard. IBLP is described by Focus on the Family's Family News in Focus as an organization "provid[ing] a voluntary program for inmates who feel that God can change their lives."

Gothard, who is at the forefront of the character education movement called Character First!, "teaches that Jesus Christ is at the top of a 'chain of command' in which authority figures, teachers, employers, elected officials, and, of course, preachers ? are ordained as leaders by Christ and should be obeyed without question," Bob Norman reported in Florida's New Times in September 2002.

The goal of the CCA/IBLP partnership is to enroll up to 1,000 inmates ? incarcerated in CCA-operated prisons in the Southeastern and Westeern United States that house more than 60,000 inmates ? in a faith-ceentered rehabilitation program, Family News in Focus reported.

This isn't the CCA's only marriage to faith-based organizations. Since 1991, CCA has been working with the Dallas, Texas-based Bill Glass Champions for Life (CFL). In April of last year it entered into a full-scale partnership with CFL, which according to the Nashville City Paper, allows CFL to develop "religious-oriented prison programs" inside the walls of "all... of CCA's prisons in the United States over the next three years." According to the new arrangement, CFL will work with the more than 60,000 inmates housed in CCA's 64 facilities in the U.S.

"Everyone one of our jails and prisons, on any given day, has groups that do outreach or volunteer work with inmates," Louise Green, CCA's vice president of marketing and communications, told the Nashville newspaper. The CFL contract "is the first time we've had one organization uniformly come into all our facilities," she pointed out.

Champions for Life (CFL), founded in 1972, operates prison ministries in 42 US states as well as Mexico, Bermuda, the Dominican Republic, South Africa and Russia, according to a report published by the Public Services International Research Unit (PSIRU) of the University of Greenwich, London, England.

And the Information Network Focus on Religious Movements (INFORM) at the London School of Economics claims that CFL is hooked into the broad network of Christian right groups supporting the Bush administration and it shares a "theological-political world view" with these groups.

According to the Denver Post, CCA has come under fire recently over several incidents at its prisons in the past few months. Two inmates were "critically injured" at a facility in Watonga, Okla. in May, "after hundreds of prisoners with baseball bats, fire extinguishers and two-by-fours fought one another and guards." In late July, prisoners rioted at the Crowley County Correctional Facility in Olney Springs, Colo.

In early August, "a female inmate at a Nashville prison died after suffering a skull fracture while in her cell," the Post reported. Four CCA employees are currently under investigation in her death.

If Florida governor Jeb Bush has his way, nascent faith-based initiatives in state-run prisons may eventually lead to the relinquishing of all government control over the state's prison system to faith-based organizations.

Over the past eight months, Gov. Bush presided over the opening of two full-fledged faith-based prisons. (The state already ran faith-based programs in at least nine prisons, Americans United for Separation of Church & State recently pointed out.) The newly remodeled Lawtey Correctional Institute, which opened its doors in late December, is a medium-security facility located about 30 miles southwest of Jacksonville. The facility was designed to house 800 men when it was transformed into a prison devoted to rehabilitation through faith-based programs.

In mid-April, the governor opened a second faith-based prison: the Hillsborough Correctional Institution in Tampa, which will house some 300 women. According to Americans United's Jeremy Leaming, "Although all faiths will reportedly be allowed to offer religious instruction and other services at the faith-based prisons, most of the programs are expected to be Christian. The Hillsborough set-up mirrors Lawtey's, where religious instruction and exercises are the tools used to reform, rehabilitate and, no doubt, convert as many inmates as possible." Leaming reported that "A spokeswoman for Bush said Hillsborough promises to provide 'an environment that allows and encourages personal growth, self-reflection and character development.'"

Governor Bush's prison conversion programs are only a small part of the state's involvement with faith-based organizations. The Toronto Globe and Mail recently reported that at a "prayer meeting in Tallahassee... Bush announced that he has set up a high-level advisory board to make sure that religious groups get 'fair and equitable access to state government.'"

According to the newspaper, "Every department of the Florida government is now required to have a 'faith-based coordinator' who is expected to reach out to churches, synagogues and missionary groups and encourage them to make bids to offer government services in exchange for grants from Washington."

*Despite the intervention of a number of religious right heavyweights including the Rev. Pat Robertson, Tucker was executed on then-Texas Governor George W. Bush's watch. Berkowitz pleaded guilty in a Brooklyn courtroom to the "Son of Sam" murders in 1978 and he later found Christ. These days he continues his mission from his cell at the Sullivan Correctional Facility in Fallsburg, New York.

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.

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