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Florida's new approach to inmate reform: a 'faith-based' prison

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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.

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