CCA says funding groups using company profits makes it legal, but others argue that since CCA acts for the government in running facilities, it cannot support a particular religious message.
"In the corrections context, CCA would be treated as if it is a 'state actor,' " says Robert Tuttle, a law professor at George Washington University and an expert on faith-based program issues.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation of Madison, Wis., and its New Mexico members recently filed a federal lawsuit against the state and CCA over programming at the women's prison in Grants, N.M. FFRF says the Life Principles program in the "faith pod" there is fundamentalist Christian and teaches the women submission to male authority.
"This is a flagrant endorsement of religion," says Annie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. "We consider this a nationally significant lawsuit because they are the major private provider of prison services ... and have openly said they want to franchise this."
The company contends it's on safe ground because programs are voluntary and inmates don't have to convert; it developed a checklist for detention facilities to follow, which it says will ensure they are meeting First Amendment requirements.
Ms. Gaylor disagrees: "They are being told that the only way they can be rehabilitated is through Jesus Christ, so it's a mind game even if they say you don't have to convert."
Volunteering in prison is a complicated question, Professor Tuttle says. Do some make choices they think officials or parole boards favor?
Along with issues of taxpayer funding of a religious message, there are questions of religious programs' efficacy in prison. Todd Clear, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, has conducted several evaluations. He says that empirical data have not shown a positive impact that can be traced to the programs themselves.