December 12th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

Faith-Based Prison Reform

In Sunday's New York Times there was a good in-depth look at what's going on right now in the US in terms of "faith-based" prison reform efforts: "Religion for a Captive Audience, Paid for by Taxes" by Diana Henriques and Andrew Lehern. They review a couple of the programs, and they review the maze of conflicting and confusing court decisions about the legality of these programs, which have been sued repeatedly by groups like the ACLU and the Freedom from Religion Foundation.

Here's what strikes me, more and more, about this situation. Let me start by making an even simpler, more straight-forward, and more compelling version of the case for faith-based prisoner rehab programs than the (almost entirely fundamentalist Christian) charities and government officials running them usually make. That's not meant to pick on them too hard; like a lot of people, they've been convinced of the rightness of their own side for so long they no longer remember, if they ever knew, what parts of their case you don't already know. And what their case comes down to is this: we have spent billions of dollars and decades of time and thousands of man-years of labor on trying every conceivable model for prisoner rehabilitation. We have tested every theory that has been offered up for how to keep people who have been sent to prison from committing new offenses when they get out and being sent back. And none of them, not a single one of them, has worked. A few seemed to work, but the studies in question have always turned out to be "cooked" in some way to back somebody's pet theory, and none of them have made the slightest difference in the recidivism rate when applied in the real world of real prisons.

So there's one more theory that they insist hasn't been tried, at least not tried under anything like modern conditions. Fundamentalist intelligentsia often make the claim that the theory of Christian redemption is as scientific a theory as any. That when the Christian scriptures promise that if you repent from your sins and accept Biblical authority, and worship Jesus Christ in prayer according to fundamentalist interpretations, you will see a perceptible, measurable change in your personality. Being "saved from sin" is not some hypothetical pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die thing to them; it is an actual condition that you will, they claim, experience in this world as well. And they put it forth as a scientific theory, one that they are willing to submit to experimental verification, that if prisoners were to be persuaded to make an honest repentance of their sins and to honestly embrace Christ as their personal Lord and savior, this in-this-world salvation from sin would produce a marked, statistically measurable reduction in levels of temptation to sin (and crime, and violence) in those who accepted that offer. To that end, they have proposed experiments in prisons all over this country in which various minor bribes or inducements are used to lure prisoners into settings for Christian evangelism and then to keep them in programs of Christian discipleship. They predict, based on their religious beliefs, that those prisoners will show substantially reduced recidivism.

(They're wrong. LSD advocates say the same thing about Timothy Leary's psilocybin prisoner-rehab experiment. Only decades later did we find out that the experimental results were "cooked," that the prisoners in the psychedelic group showed substantially lower recidivism rates because each one was assigned a Harvard-grad mentor to buy their way out of trouble from then on. Dr. Leary confessed as much in his auto-biography, years later. The few "successes" that faith-based prisoner rehab programs have produced have all resulted from that same trickery, from pairing each prisoner in the experimental group with a much wealthier and more successful partner who is told that the whole future of the program depends on their ex-con "friend" staying out of trouble. But give the evangelicals credit for at least suggesting it as a testable hypothesis, which is better than we've come to expect.)

So that being said, since every other effort to rehabilitate prisoners has failed, what's wrong with spending a few millions of dollars on testing yet another hypothesis? If it isn't knee-jerk hatred of religion, what is it that makes some people treat the idea of testing this one hypothesis, just because its a hypothesis that's consistent with Christian doctrine? I'll tell you what's wrong with it.

Right now, we're at what we may hope (with very little optimism) is the tail end of one of the worst such experiments in American history. Ronald Reagan swept into office on, among his many political ideas, a "new" theory of prisoner rehabilitation. The previous liberal (educational and psychiatric) model of prisoner rehab having demonstrably failed (and it did; the recidivism rate was identical to that of prisoner groups that got no rehab), Reagan and the Republicans were voted in on a promise to try something new, namely making prison so miserable, so harsh, so cruel, so awful, that nobody who'd ever been in would be willing to risk getting sent back in. And, to our great national shame (if we collectively had any conscience left on the subject, which we clearly don't), we have made our prisons more hellish than almost any in the world. If Abu Ghraib shocked your conscience, it means you know nothing about American prisons. Most of the abusers were civilian prison guards before they went over there with their National Guard units, and any lawyer for American domestic prison inmates can match Abu Ghraib story for story. Nor does the average American feel any guilt about this if they do hear about it, because our national media only tell us about prisons when the story is about how hellishly awful the prisoners are, so that we can all feel safely assured that everybody in prison deserves whatever hellish things are done to them in our name. (Despite the fact that, for example, the latest estimate is that 15% of those convicted of murder in arson cases were convicted based on obsolete scientific evidence, in cases where the fire was now demonstrably accidental, not arson. See Robert Tanner, "Science Casts Doubt on Arson Convictions," Associated Press, 12/9/06.)

And as a theory of prisoner rehabilitation, "Scared Straight" has clearly not worked. The recidivism rate is higher than ever, and as a result America now incarcerates more people than any other country in the world, a record-breaking seven million people (counting those on probation and parole). So the hunger for a new theory of prisoner rehab, the hunger that drives the demand to try faith-based programs, is consistent with a real, legitimate need for change. But no small part of what's wrong with this, and I shouldn't have to explain to evangelicals and fundamentalists why this is wrong, is that in order to recruit prisoners into the experimental groups, as it shows in the NYT article linked above, we're offering to make their prison experience perceptibly less hellish if they go along with the majority's religion. And, as it was when a celebrated member of the fundamentalist intelligentsia (Dr. John Stormer) taught me this as a kid, what's wrong with that is that in the future, your religion may no longer be the one that's in the majority.

Right now, Islam is growing by leaps and bounds around the world, and even within the US. (Unsurprising. Having allied themselves with the party of Satanic values of selfishness and greed, the Republican Party, and then having preached crusade against Islamic countries in the sacred names of both Jesus Christ and George W. Bush, American Christian leaders have done more to ensure the success of Islamic evangelists than the Taliban and al Qaeda combined. As the prophet Samuel said to King Saul under similar circumstances, they have "given the enemies of the Lord great occasion to blaspheme.") So even if you think it's unlikely, it shouldn't be completely unimaginable to them that their grandchildren or great grandchildren may grow up in an America where Islam is the majority religion? Where a majority of Congress and the Supreme Court could be persuaded that the next theory of prisoner rehab that should be tried is a program of enticed conversion to Wahhabi Islam? And where, in effect, the punishment for not agreeing to memorize the Koran, or for not convincing the prison's imam of the sincerity of your conversion, is to be jailed under much crueler and more inhumane conditions than the faithful Muslim prisoners get?

America's Founding Fathers, guilted into it by Thomas Jefferson and a few others, had the foresight to set up a system where someone from a political party, ethnic group, or religious denomination that hates your guts can win control of the government ... and still find themselves unable to punish you for that. That was a good idea. It's worked great for us, so far. That's what we should be teaching the Iraqis. And we should keep it, ourselves.