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A captive audience for salvation

A for-profit prison company stirs hope - and church-state issues - pursuing partnerships with Evangelical Christian ministries.

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America has the highest incarceration level in the world, and its prisons serve too consistently as revolving doors. Are faith-based programs in prisons the answer to these disturbing trends?

The largest private company running prisons and jails in the United States, Corrections Corporation of America, thinks so. CCA has embarked on a major initiative to expand such programs in all 63 facilities it operates under contract with local, state, and federal governments.

"These programs give inmates hope and prepare them to be different people," says John Lanz, CCA's director of industry and special programs.

While the ambitious approach wins kudos from some inmates, other people question its constitutionality.

Though not directly supported by President Bush's faith-based initiative, CCA's program poses the same questions about how to encourage positive change in people's lives without privileging one form of religion with taxpayer dollars. Some also see potential political ramifications.

CCA provides for a variety of religious services in each facility, as required by law. But in addition, it has formed partnerships with eight national Evangelical Christian ministries under which CCA provides annual financial contributions and sets up franchise-style operations within facilities.

"We had chaplains and religious services, but I saw we didn't take full advantage of resources these national ministries provided, and they were having [legal] difficulties in state and federal facilities," says Mr. Lanz. "As a private company, we could knock down the barriers."

Critics say those barriers shouldn't come down. Religious programming per se - which can benefit both prisoners and the prison environment - is not at issue, but showing preference for a particular religion is. The partnerships do that, they suggest, especially when they include residential "pods" where one faith message structures the living situation, and benefits are available that others don't get.

In a case unrelated to CCA, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State has challenged in court the Inner Change program run in an Iowa prison by Charles Colson's Prison Fellowship. Results of that trial are due any day.

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