Tuesday, January 20, 2004
by Wayne Besen
Gov. Jeb Bush's pronouncement that Florida will open the nation's first "faith-based" prison is a terrible idea that is unethical, probably unconstitutional and may even lead to favoritism of fundamentalist Christian inmates.
Bush and prison officials disingenuously try to allay public fears by claiming that the prison is nondenominational with the 791 prisoners representing 26 faiths. However, Bush quickly exposed the transparency of this supposed pluralism.
"I can't think of a better place to reflect on the awesome love of our Lord Jesus than to be here at Lawtey Correctional. God bless you," said Bush.
Bush doesn't get it. There are many taxpaying Florida citizens who don't consider Jesus "our Lord." We are offended by his apparent religious supremacy and we don't agree with his slick, tax-funneling scheme to support his preferred faiths. It is clear that this ill-conceived initiative most likely violates the separation of church and state.
While Bush's new initiative may claim to represent several faiths, this too can be deceptive. No faith is monolithic and each religion has several branches, which interpret religious texts in radically different ways.
Gay activists such as myself will be watching closely to make sure our tax dollars are not illegally used to teach a right-wing view of religion or homosexuality. We consider such extreme religious views dangerous and bad for society.
True freedom of religion requires Bush to fully embrace the value of all faiths represented in the prison system. This includes equal treatment and a full array of services for Eastern religions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, as well as unorthodox faiths such as Wicca.
Perhaps the most disturbing part of the new scheme is the potential for abusive favoritism, religious coercion and additional punishment for nonbelievers. The governor has already made it clear that Lawtey is his pet project. This may send a signal or create the perception among inmates that entering Bush's beloved experiment may be a ticket to early release.
It is not a leap to see how an inmate might think a parole board may be more sympathetic to Bible-believing inmates at Lawtey than they might be to nonbelievers at traditional state prisons. This may coerce some inmates to fake conversions to receive systematic advantages. Others who remain true to their unpopular faith, or proudly profess no faith, may receive harsher treatment by the Florida correctional system.
While Bush says each inmate has a "choice" in whether to participate in a faith-based program, the only choice inmates may truly face is conforming or confronting the consequences of not converting.
I doubt that Bush wants the emergence of a theocratic prison system that gives early release to prisoners in faith-based programs. However, a paradigm such as this can easily spin out of control. Prison officials know the governor has placed a lot of political capital into this program.
"Wouldn't it be nice if we could figure out a way to lower that 38 percent (recidivism rate) closer to zero percent, for your family and your community?" asked Bush during his speech announcing the new faith-based prison.
Although he has no solid evidence, Bush clearly believes repeat offenders would nearly vanish if inmates found religion. This attitude of religious favoritism will surely filter its way down the correctional food chain, as employees of the governor will work to please him.
Sadly, the most likely people to be abused by this inchoate religious pecking order are those least likely to complain. How apt is a gay, Jewish or atheist inmate to object to religious persecution when such a minority prisoner might have to face the wrath of angry prison officials or zealous inmates? And what incentive does a virtually powerless inmate have in challenging a favored policy of a powerful governor?
In fact, the first evidence of faith-based intimidation has already occurred. In a Miami Herald article announcing the new program, Lawtey inmate Bryan Lemaster was asked about inmates who want to stay at Lawtey without taking part in religious programs.
"They'll get weeded out," said Lemaster. "When that gets taken care of I think it will be pretty good."
One does not have to watch HBO's "Oz" to realize what "weeding out" might imply in a prison setting. The governor's shortsighted new program is likely to fail because it is almost certain to lead to gross inequities, religious partiality and doctrinal discrimination.
posted by will, at