Ken Cooper is a convicted bank robber whose life changed after visits in jail from a retired Sunday School teacher. Now, he's getting the chance to return the favor.
Wednesday Mr. Cooper, who has become an evangelical minister, will give the prayer of dedication at a Florida experiment in inmate rehabilitation: America's first totally "faith-based prison."
The medium-security facility will house only inmates who have chosen to take part in rehabilitation programs run by volunteers from religious groups.
While controversial to critics who see it blurring church-state lines, the program aims to become a model for correctional systems that have long struggled to break the cycle of recidivism.
Every year, Florida's jail officers say farewell to about 25,000 inmates at the end of their sentences. But roughly the same number of new prisoners arrive at their doors. And of those who are released, nearly half commit new crimes within five years.
To advocates such as Cooper, many of whom have been through those prison gates themselves, the best way out involves desire, discipline, and the divine.
"Faith is what makes a difference. If you change what's inside you, you have the opportunity to live your life," says Cooper, who expects that 90 percent of those involved in the Lawtey Correctional Institution program in Raiford, Florida, will not reoffend.
That's an ambitious goal, given the tidal trend of inmate recidivism. "It's like the sea flowing in and out," said Sterling Ivey, spokesman for Florida's Department of Corrections. "You lose some, but then you gain some. It's a pretty relentless cycle."
In the program, volunteers will act as personal mentors, offering support to each inmate both during their incarceration and as they settle back into the community after serving their sentences.
Inmates will participate in all the usual day-to-day prison activities, but during evenings and at weekends will undergo extra classes examining issues such as anger management, good parenting, and the effect of crime on victims, run by representatives from a variety of faiths including Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.
As of today, 26 religions will be represented among Lawtey's population. Belief in a god is not a requirement of the program. But a commitment to self-improvement is. Of the 819 prisoners housed at Lawtey when the scheme was announced in early December, less than 100 have indicated that they do not wish to take part; they have been moved to facilities elsewhere in the state.
"If you have an entire prison comprised solely of people who want to better themselves, you take out some of the negative influences that you find in a traditional prison environment," said prison spokesman Mr. Ivey. "We hope to capitalize on that."
Since his release in 1987, Cooper has been actively involved in the rehabilitation of offenders, first through the Prisoners of Christ organization he helped found, and later through his independent contract work for the Department of Corrections.
His Jacksonville-based group will make two visits a week to Lawtey to concentrate on "real issues," including education and prevention of substance abuse.
"I'd always understood I was doomed to a life of misery and hell, but I learned I could be forgiven," Cooper says. "Individuals in prison have always had the opportunity to learn who they are spiritually, but to dedicate a prison to faith is monumental. It's bold and courageous."
The taxpayer-funded program is not without controversy. Some say it violates the constitutionally required separation of church and state.
"A state can no more create a faith-based prison than it could set up faith-based public schools or faith-based police departments," says the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which has a federal lawsuit pending against a state-sponsored evangelical Christian project at a prison in Iowa. "Governor [Jeb] Bush is trying to merge religion and government."
Critics see the governor's decision as giving momentum to the wider agenda pioneered by President Bush, his brother, to expand federally funded faith-based initiatives nationwide.
Howard Simon, executive director of America Civil Liberties Union of Florida, deems it "inappropriate." "This may be a good program and a successful program, but that doesn't mean it should be sponsored by government," he said.
But advocates of the scheme say there is proof that a faith-based approach to criminal rehabilitation can cut recidivism, citing the Iowa project - the InnerChange Freedom Initiative - as an example.
Results of a two-year study, released in June by the University of Pennsylvania and the conservative Manhattan Institute, showed that InnerChange graduates were 50 percent less likely to be arrested and 60 percent less likely to be reincarcerated than those who did not take part.
InnerChange has sparked debate, however, because it requires inmates to study the Bible and obliges them to become active church members for three months following release, drawing criticism that it amounts to religious indoctrination.
Florida officials say there will be no such requirement at Lawtey. Rather, they say, it is time to recognize the impact faith-based initiatives can have on a state incarceration that is the nation's fourth highest.
"It is imperative for government to work in close and careful coordination with community and faith-based organizations," says Florida's Governor Bush. "Government alone will never solve the problems tearing the fabric of our society."