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When God Goes to Prison

A guard watches as inmates prepare for a work detail at the minimum-security facility known as the Carol Vance Unit.

When God Goes to Prison

The Carol Vance Unit is the kind of faith-based program the Bush Administration would like to see more of. Its mix of religion and rehabilitation may violate the First Amendment, but may also make it the best prison in Texas.


By Daniel Brook

LAST JANUARY, I JOINED INMATES FROM THE CAROL VANCE UNIT, a wing of the state prison in Richmond, Tex., as they gathered in the prison chapel for a farewell ceremony. The ceremony was in honor of three "graduates," prisoners who had secured parole. In Texas, parolees are typically shipped to the state's inmate-release processing center in Huntsville, in the far eastern part of the state, where they are given a $50 check and a bus ticket for what is often a long ride home. The trip to El Paso, for instance, is over 800 miles—plenty of time to contemplate a future on the outside with no job leads. 

Vance Unit parolees, however, are allowed to depart directly from the prison facility. They walk through the prison gate accompanied by their mentor, a member of a nearby church who has worked with them during their stay at the prison. One of the graduates being honored was Christopher Harris, who had just finished serving a four-year sentence for cocaine possession. In a plaid button-down shirt and khaki pants, Harris stood out from the prisoners in white jumpsuits who had assembled in the chapel. As the ceremony began, friends said goodbye to Harris, some breaking down, others simply wishing him good luck. 

Charles Gerhardt, Harris's mentor, walked to a podium and stood in front of an 8-foot-tall wooden cross. Gerhardt is white and a bit older than middle aged, unlike Harris and the predominantly young black and Latino inmates who made up the audience in the chapel. "The state'll be happy if you just go straight," Gerhardt told Harris. "Jesus'll be happy if you rebuild some of what you tore down." 

When Gerhardt finished, Harris took the podium. He looked out at the inmates and told them in an east Texas drawl, "All y'all are my brothers." Tommie Dorsett, the prison's director of evangelical programming, presented him with an oversized metal key with a cross on the end, meant to remind Harris of his time at the Vance Unit whenever he faces temptations on the outside. You may be free of the state's control, Dorsett told Harris, but "Satan puts you in bondage as well. Satan puts you in the bondage of sin." 

When he completed his remarks, Dorsett issued an order: "Assume the position." In response to this ominous-sounding request, the inmates rose and huddled in front of the podium, hugging each other tightly. One prisoner led the others in an impromptu prayer, beseeching "Father God" to bless the three inmates going out into the world. 

THE VANCE UNIT IS ABOUT 30 MILES FROM DOWNTOWN HOUSTON, off a road lined with trailer parks, farms, and the gated communities that are quickly replacing both. Chain-link fences strung up with razor wire separate the residents of the low-slung brick prison buildings from the free citizens of Tom DeLay's Congressional district. 

In 1997, at the behest of the Texas State Legislature and then-Governor George W. Bush, Prison Fellowship Ministries was given control over the wing of the state prison in Richmond that would become the Vance Unit. PFM, a nondenominational group, was founded in 1976 by the former Nixon aide Charles Colson, who had embraced evangelical Christianity while serving time in a federal prison in Alabama for his part in the Watergate cover-up. PFM volunteers and staffers now work in prisons across the country and around the world to spread the Gospel. They visit prisoners, lead Bible study groups, and teach faith-based courses that show inmates how religious conviction can help them stay off drugs, care for their children, and hold down a steady job. 

Colson stepped down as head of day-to-day operations at PFM in 2002, and Mark Earley, a former Virginia attorney general, took his place. According to PFM's most recent annual report, a publication called "Isn't It Just Like God . . .," the group continues to expand under Earley's leadership, now offering programs in over 70 percent of U.S. prisons. Earley joined PFM after losing the 2001 governor's race in Virginia to Democrat Mark Warner. "Isn't it just like God to close one door only to open another?" the annual report asks. 

The Vance Unit was PFM's first attempt at implementing its "InnerChange Freedom Initiative," an all-encompassing regimen of day and night prayer meetings, classes, and rehabilitation programs for prisoners. In IFI facilities like the Vance Unit, states turn over an entire wing—or an entire prison—to PFM in the hope that religion will help inmates turn their lives around. Conventional prisons are clearly failing to rehabilitate inmates. In its most recent study, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that nearly 68 percent of released inmates in the 15 states it looked at were rearrested within three years. Bush, speaking at the Vance Unit's opening, stressed that it is the facility's unconventional approach that makes it effective: "InnerChange is a program that works to change people's lives by changing their hearts." 

Colson believes that the IFI program "perfectly fits into what President Bush calls a faith-based solution to public policy problems." The White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives does not endorse individual programs, but the IFI national director Jerry Wilger told me that officials at the highest levels of the administration, including the president himself, are following the program and are impressed with its results. 

Civil liberties groups are watching the program too, and they're worried. Three other states—Iowa, Kansas, and Minnesota—now have IFI prisons, and Texas is considering turning over a women's prison near Houston to IFI. The Texas legislature recently authorized an expansion of IFI's Richmond facility that will bring the total number of beds under the program's control from 230 up to 400. 

PFM's prison visits are not controversial—all religious groups are given equal access to prisoners—but IFI is. A number of civil liberties groups believe that turning over a wing of a state prison to a religious group violates the First Amendment. In February, one such group, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, announced a legal challenge to the IFI program in Iowa, which, if successful, could threaten the other IFI programs as well. The suit could become a flashpoint in the fight over Bush's faith-based initiatives. 

But IFI had existed for six years before the Iowa suit was filed. One barrier to the lawsuit was finding a prisoner who wanted to complain. There's also another explanation for the reluctance of civil libertarians to oppose IFI: a grudging respect. IFI says that it does a far better job rehabilitating prisoners than the government—a claim that even some of the program's staunchest ideological opponents concede. 

INMATES IN TEXAS PRISONS HEAR ABOUT THE VANCE UNIT through word of mouth, PFM volunteers, and prison chaplains who distribute IFI literature. The applicant pool is limited by a series of requirements that inmates must meet. IFI is a prerelease program, meaning only inmates with 18 to 24 months left on their sentences are allowed to join; because mentors are recruited in Houston and Dallas, only inmates paroling to those two areas are eligible. Prisoners with bad discipline records are screened out, and sex offenders and inmates convicted of capital murder are barred from the program. Inmates who are willing and able to take part in IFI are given six weeks to work with a PFM volunteer, learn about the program, read Bible passages, and answer application questions like "Do you want God to change your life? Explain." 

IFI officials say that the Texas corrections department recommends about 100 eligible candidates every six months and about 60 opt to join the program. The IFI staff reads the applications, but answers are evaluated only for completion, not content. "We don't look for any deep thoughts," Dorsett said. 

Those who are admitted are transferred to the Vance Unit, where they experience what PFM calls "immersion in biblically-based teaching." Classes, which meet every weekday, have a set curriculum and are organized into three-month semesters. Some classes focus on the basics of the Christian faith; others are intended to foster repentance by introducing inmates to the victims of crimes and their families. All of the classes have homework, in the form of reading assignments and written work to prepare for class. In addition to the Bible, inmates read books that offer a contemporary take on living a Christian life, like The Search for Significance by Robert McGee, a psychological counselor with a practice in Colorado Springs. His book explains how Christians can find self-esteem by accepting the unconditional love of Jesus Christ, rather than relying on the fickle regard of friends, co-workers, and society at large. 

The curriculum also depends heavily on the experiences and faith of its teachers. On the day I visited his classroom, Larry Campanello was preparing his 38 students for the arduous, low-paying jobs they're likely to encounter on the outside. Campanello is a burly middle-aged pastor who played linebacker for Texas Southern University. With its pale beige paint and anti-drunk-driving posters, his classroom wouldn't look out of place in a public high school—except for the dress code, the bars behind the dry-erase board, and the course of study. 

I sat in the back of the classroom and listened as Campanello instructed his students to resist making excuses or claiming that their crimes were the result of economic or social forces beyond their control. Digging ditches for $6.50 an hour won't support the lavish drug dealer's lifestyle some inmates used to enjoy, he told them, but "our rewards are up in heaven." Moving from the hardships the inmates are likely to face to a discussion of his own, he revealed to the class that one of his six children has cerebral palsy. "Do you think life was fair to me?" he asked. "Do you think life was fair to Jesus?" he demanded, this time a good deal louder, staring out at the class as if expecting an answer to his question. Before anyone could respond, however, he described the scene at Calvary and Jesus' suffering on the cross. "That should have been you up there," he told his students. "That should have been me up there." 

"Jesus said, 'I am the way, the truth . . .' " 
". . . and the life," the inmates joined in, finishing Campanello's verse. 
"No one comes to the Father . . . " 
". . . except through the Son," they responded. 

At the end of class, Campanello handed out a photocopy of a medical reconstruction of what happened to Jesus' body as he was crucified. The article, by an Arizona ophthalmologist, combined a literal interpretation of the Bible with contemporary medical knowledge, with the goal of verifying the accounts of the Gospels and helping the reader understand them in all their horrific detail. In his Gospel, Luke writes that Christ's "sweat was like drops of blood." The handout explained that Luke had observed a rare phenomenon known as hematidrosis. "Under great emotional stress of the kind our Lord suffered," read the handout, "tiny capillaries in the sweat glands can break, thus mixing blood with sweat." 

IFI course instructors are permitted to preach the Gospel as they see it, free of any concessions to political correctness or the need to acknowledge the beliefs of other faiths. To the two Muslims in his class, Campanello was polite, but adamant. "For those of you who are Muslim, Jesus is God," he said. "I'm sorry if I've offended you, but Jesus is God." 

IN THE 1960S AND '70S, CAROL VANCE WAS THE DISTRICT ATTORNEY of Houston, one of the most populous jurisdictions in the nation. During that time, he was chosen by his peers to serve as president of the National District Attorney's Association. The son and grandson of Methodist ministers, Vance himself did not become seriously committed to evangelical Christianity until his last years as a prosecutor. Through his church, he organized a group of men to visit prisoners in solitary confinement. Vance told me that ministering to those inmates, many of whom were psychologically unstable, was "the hardest thing I've ever done in my life." 

In the early 1990s, Governor Ann Richards asked Vance, by then a partner at the Houston firm of Bracewell & Patterson, to join the Texas Board of Criminal Justice, which oversees the state's Corrections Department. Vance was busy with his white-collar criminal defense practice and prison ministry work and didn't want to do it. "I told her I'd pray about it and let her know," he said. "The Lord didn't leave me alone, and I ended up saying yes." He would serve on the board for six years, two and a half of them as chairman. 

In 1996, Charles Colson invited a group of American corrections officials, including Vance, to Brazil to tour a penitentiary near São Paulo called Humaita, which was founded in 1974 and is believed to be the world's first contemporary faith-based prison. The program is run almost entirely by Christian volunteers rather than a paid corrections staff. It relies, as one study puts it, on "saturating the prison environment with religious programming and instruction" and promoting family visits, mentoring, and work-release. The prison has succeeded in reducing recidivism, unlike most Brazilian prisons, which are plagued by overcrowding, violence, and riots. 

"It was revolutionary," Vance said. "The inmates had the keys to the prison and let us in. There wasn't a single guard on the place." What impressed Vance most, however, was that he "saw guys down there in that prison that really loved each other and cared about each other." Colson hoped to establish a similar, if better guarded, program in the United States, where American prisoners would be immersed in Christian prayer meetings and rehabilitation programs, but at the time no state would give PFM the go-ahead. So Vance approached Texas's new, born-again governor, George W. Bush. 

Vance was no stranger to the Bush family. He had been a tennis partner of the first President Bush before his election as vice president in 1980. "When we got back from Brazil, George W. Bush had been elected governor and was advocating faith-based ministries for Texas," Vance said. During his time as governor, Bush defended an evangelical antidrug program called Teen Challenge from state regulators who demanded that treatment centers be staffed with trained detoxification professionals rather than preachers. He also helped religious day care centers get private accreditation when the state refused to license them. Vance asked Bush to back a plan to create a faith-based prison in Texas and to help push it through the legislature. "He was on board from the beginning—the governor was ecstatic," Vance said. 

When Vance's term expired, the Board of Criminal Justice voted to name the faith-based prison after him. Vance pointed out that with 110 prisons in Texas, it's not uncommon to name one after a former board chairman, but he was flattered. "It's helped me recruit people to go out there as volunteers," he said. 

Vance himself is a volunteer at the Richmond prison, but even when he is not physically on the premises, inmates are exposed to his ideas. His book, After the Leap: Growing in Christ, is part of the IFI curriculum that every inmate studies. The book lays out the basic tenets of evangelical Christianity in an easy-to-read fashion. Many of the book's lessons—aphorisms like "The family that follows Jesus is a winning team" and "Angels are real"—seem as if they've been inspired by the 1997 self-help book Chicken Soup for the Christian Soul. But there are also more specific prescriptions. The former D.A. writes that "Satan is a real person and has many demons in his army" and warns his readers to "avoid Ouija boards and games like Dungeons and Dragons, which are part of Satan's world. . . . Do not even read the horoscopes in the local newspaper. The supernatural practice of predicting the future is not innocent child's play but a form of witchcraft—an abomination to God." 

BY THE TIME THE VANCE UNIT OPENED, Lara v. Williams was working its way through the Texas courts. The American Civil Liberties Union and the American Jewish Congress were challenging the constitutionality of an evangelical prison wing in Tarrant County known as the "God Pod," which was managed by David Williams, the county sheriff. The programming at the God Pod was similar to IFI's: an all-day schedule of evangelical classes as well as secular education and job training. In 2001, the Texas Supreme Court, overruling a series of lower courts, unanimously held that the program was unconstitutional. The court reasoned that because Sheriff Williams, a government official, managed the program, it crossed the line into government endorsement of a particular religion. 

Hoping to avoid the fate of the "God Pod," PFM has taken pains to stay on the constitutional side of the line. Don Willett, a senior policy advisor to Governor Bush who called the Vance Unit "a jailhouse rock of ages," said the program "was crafted carefully to avoid thorny church-state entanglements." In IFI prisons, taxpayer money pays for only those aspects of the program that exist in other state prisons, like guards' salaries and food for prisoners. (Taxpayers may reap some savings thanks to the occasional fast days at IFI prisons.) All of the religious programs are paid for with private donations, as was the construction of the prison chapel. The annual religious programming budget at the Carol Vance Unit is $850,000. PFM officials said that while there are a few large donors, a typical annual donation is about $40. 

PFM recruitment materials make clear that the IFI program is voluntary and that inmates of all faiths, or no faith, are allowed to participate. The statement "The InnerChange Freedom Initiative Is Fully Voluntary" is printed in bold on the first page of the IFI handbook, which is a bit like a college application: a description of the program followed by a section for inmates to fill out. Later in the handbook, prospective participants are asked to answer the question: "The following are allowed in the InnerChange Freedom Initiative: a. Christians, b. Muslims, c. Jews, d. Baptists, e. Atheists, f. Catholics." The correct answer is all of the above. 

It's unclear whether PFM officials accept non-Christian inmates out of legal necessity or out of a belief that IFI can convert them. "Muslims come into [our] prison because we can't determine the population; we can't preselect," Charles Colson told Alan Keyes on his cable talk show last spring. "Most of them are converted to Christ." According to Tommie Dorsett, about a dozen Muslims have completed the program in Texas, and most but not all converted to Christianity. Muslims in IFI prisons, Colson said, "can see that [Christianity] is something far superior" to Islam, which he called "a religion which breeds hatred." 

The Muslim inmates I spoke with in the Vance Unit told me that they applied to IFI out of a general interest in religion but have no intention of converting. Though there is clearly peer pressure to "find Jesus"—inmates demonstrate their progress by briefing classmates and staff on their "walk with Christ"—prisoners of all faiths are allowed to practice their religion in the unit. The 12 Muslim inmates now at the Vance Unit pray five times a day on their own and hold prayer meetings every Friday. Hugh Simmons, a 37-year-old Muslim inmate and a member of Larry Campanello's class, remained seated when the other inmates were asked to rise for Christian prayers. He told me that he was not offended by the "for those of you who are Muslim, Jesus is God" remark. Campanello is entitled to his opinion, he said. 

CIVIL LIBERTARIANS ARE LESS FORGIVING. That such a remark can be made in what they consider a state-endorsed program astonishes them. Until recently, however, the IFI prisons had not provoked a legal challenge. Kara Gotsch, a spokesperson for the ACLU National Prison Project, told me that the group has not made fighting IFI a priority. While the ACLU considers the program to be in violation of the First Amendment, it has chosen to concentrate on other issues. The National Prison Project, which was founded in 1972, focuses on prison overcrowding, access to medical care, inmate safety, and abuse by corrections officers. "When you have a prisoner dying, that tends to take precedence," Gotsch said. "At least these religious programs are doing something." 

By all accounts, what they are doing has been remarkably effective. In addition to the religious classes, inmates are given the opportunity to earn a GED and take computer classes. Vance Unit inmates can become "Microsoft Certified Professionals," which makes them eligible for computer help desk jobs. The course is available at other Texas prisons, but the waiting lists are endless; the Vance Unit has fewer inmates and a better student-computer ratio. IFI inmates are also required to do six hours of "volunteer" work five days a week for either Habitat for Humanity, the faith-based charity that builds homes for the poor, or a nearby county bridge and road department. 

The warden at the Vance Unit allows exceptions to many Corrections Department policies because of IFI's record of running a safe prison with well-behaved inmates. Taking advantage of the prison's proximity to the inmates' Houston and Dallas homes—the latter is only three-and-a-half hours away, a short drive by Texas standards—last December IFI officials invited 150 children to visit the prison chapel for a Christmas party. After the prison staff took snapshots of the children sitting on Santa's lap, their fathers gave them presents purchased with money donated to PFM. Most Texas prisons would never allow so many inmates to congregate in one place at one time, and they certainly wouldn't allow it with children present, for fear of a riot made worse by a hostage situation. 

Upon release, parolees typically join their mentors' churches and use mentors' social networks to find a job. They also have the benefit of PFM "aftercare" facilities, which work with parole boards to make sure former inmates stay former inmates. Parolees are asked to sign a release allowing their parole officer to share otherwise confidential information with the aftercare office. "It gives us an opportunity to minister to the guy" if, for example, the parole officer suspects a substance abuse problem, explained Larry Frank, who runs the Houston aftercare office. The aim of the office, he said, is to put a "hedge of protection" around the parolee. 

Preliminary studies of the IFI program indicate that it reduces recidivism. A recent study by the Texas Criminal Justice Policy Council, an independent state agency charged with providing policy analysis to the governor and legislature, showed that IFI graduates are half as likely to end up back in the criminal justice system as non-IFIers. "Its effectiveness is better than we anticipated it to be," said IFI national director Wilger. Critics point out that these studies don't account for the prisoners who quit the program or are thrown out for discipline problems, whose recidivism rates are much higher. They also charge that the lower recidivism rates are primarily due to the secular curriculum (GED classes and job training), not the religious programs. 

Though the Texas study supports their program, it's not clear IFI officials want the credit. Phillip Dautrich, a program manager at the Carol Vance Unit, said that it's not the program per se that makes the prison successful or even safe, but "the presence of God that's here at this unit." 

IT'S THE PRESENCE OF GOD IN A STATE PRISON that worries the civil liberties groups who have decided to fight IFI. Robert Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which is mounting the legal challenge in Iowa, believes that because IFI is the only religious immersion program offered in Texas prisons, the state is favoring evangelical Christianity over other religions. "I doubt this type of arrangement would be extended to, say, a Muslim group or Scientologists or other religious believers," Boston said. 

Others charge that PFM is given special treatment because the religion it preaches happens to be the religion of powerful Texas politicians. Marc Stern, the head of the legal department at the American Jewish Congress, one of the organizations that brought the God Pod suit, noted that the religion being taught at IFI is "the dominant political religion of Texas. It is not surprising that it's not the Wiccans running this program or the Jews or the Catholics for that matter, who don't carry the same political clout." 

To civil libertarians, IFI is open to all inmates on paper only. Surely, they argue, there are plenty of inmates who would never join the program because they object to its religious teachings. As Stern put it, "Why should Jewish inmates have to suffer in a regular Texas penitentiary when a Christian inmate can get into this cushy prison?" When I asked two Muslim inmates in the Vance Unit if they would have gone to a Muslim prison if Texas had one, both said yes. 

For Wilger, that the only religious prison in Texas is an evangelical Christian one is the result of factors beyond PFM's control. Other faiths, he said, "haven't stepped up and been willing to provide a program for those people who profess a faith in that religion." In every state where IFI runs prisons, the state first makes a request for proposals to organizations of all faiths to run a wing of a prison according to their own beliefs about how best to reduce recidivism, but no other groups have answered the call. "Let the Muslims, Hindus come forward," said Lewis D. Solomon, a professor at the George Washington University Law School, whose forthcoming book, In God We Trust, defends the constitutionality of state-funded faith-based programs. "It's open to all religious groups to do something." 

But civil libertarians have a second line of attack, arguing that despite IFI's claims that its program is voluntary, it is de facto coercive, since it is the only way out of a Texas prison system that is beset with violence and offers little in the way of rehabilitation. According to the Texas corrections department statistics, there are over 600 serious inmate-on-inmate assaults a year in its prisons, and it's rare for a month to go by without a corrections officer being attacked. At the Vance Unit, it's more common to find prisoners crying than fighting—not because of any physical or emotional distress, but because they have been moved by the religious programs. As one inmate said during an afternoon prayer meeting I attended, "If Jesus wept, we can too." IFI's opponents contend that some Texas inmates opt to enter the IFI program in spite of the religious content, not because of it. Stern said that joining IFI is "advantageous because the people in it are less dangerous. In a prison environment, that's coercive." 

Many of the inmates I spoke with did seem to have joined IFI more out of dissatisfaction with the Texas prison system than out of faith. Chuck Stevenson, a fourth-time offender from Galveston serving time for attempted capital murder of a police officer, told me that IFI was "the only chance I've gotten out of TDC [the Texas Department of Criminal Justice]." "It's just lock 'em up in TDC. . . . It's just a storage facility." At IFI, Stevenson, who has embraced Christianity since arriving at the prison, said he gets educational programming and a mentor who cares about him. But "the big difference," he said, "is racial." 

Many Texas penitentiaries exhibit what one scholar has dubbed "low-intensity race war," with gangs of whites, blacks, and Latinos fighting for control of the cellblock. In IFI prisons, however, inmates are taught to see beyond race. In the IFI handbook, inmates are presented with a paraphrased version of the Good Samaritan parable: "The Jews hated Samaritans. Today many races hate other races. Think about a race you do not like." A series of statements—"Some races deserve to be hated," for example—follow, to be marked true or false. In Larry Campanello's class, as prisoners rose to pray, a black hand with a tattoo reading "Real Nigga" just below the knuckles grasped the white hand of the man next to him. 

THE LEGAL CHALLENGE TO THE PFM IMMERSION PROGRAM filed in Iowa alleges that IFI is a government-backed program that violates the First Amendment by indoctrinating inmates and using special privileges to coerce inmates to join. 

Lewis Solomon believes that in suits like this one, civil libertarians are relying on a dated interpretation of the First Amendment, not the one currently favored by the Rehnquist Court. "They are in the old model," he said. "They are pretending that the dissenters in a recent line of church-state cases are in the majority." 

The "old model" is the strict separation doctrine supported by the ACLU and once backed by the Supreme Court. It states that in a secular society there must be a wall of separation between the government and religion. In the 1963 case Abington School District v. Schempp, which banned daily Bible reading and recitation of the Lord's Prayer in public schools, Justice Thomas Clark, evoking an argument that dates back to the writings of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, maintained that permitting any religious practices in a government institution could be the first step toward allowing religious groups to "bring about a fusion of governmental and religious functions." 

In the recent church-state cases, however, the Rehnquist Court has required the state to treat religious groups and secular groups neutrally and therefore equally. In Rosenberger v. University of Virginia, the court ordered the university to reimburse printing costs of evangelical student publications as it does for secular periodicals. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy raised "the specter of governmental censorship" as a counterweight to the theocratic nightmare described by Clark. He feared that enforcing that position would require the university "to scrutinize the content of student speech" to ensure that it met "some baseline standard of secular orthodoxy." "To impose that standard on student speech at a university," Kennedy wrote, "is to imperil the very sources of free speech and expression." 

Conservative legal scholars hope the federal judiciary will apply the reasoning of Rosenberger to the IFI case. For Solomon, the IFI program is less controversial than allowing students to use taxpayer-funded vouchers to attend parochial schools—a policy that has already been upheld by the Supreme Court—since the religious parts of IFI are privately funded. The doctrine the court is currently building would seem to require the government to fund both religious and secular programs that attempt to accomplish its goals, like reducing recidivism and drug abuse. 

For Wilger, the constitutional question is not whether the service provider is neutral in matters of religion, but whether the state is neutral. "The state has the right to request proposals for services to reduce recidivism, to increase public safety, and reduce the burden on government," he said. "The fact that someone might come in and use papier-mâché widgets or stargazing or whatever is irrelevant. The state has the right to pick whatever in their opinion will in fact accomplish their task. We, as a Christian organization, use the Bible and Christian teaching to do this job." 

AT THE FIRST EVENING CLASS OF THE NEW SEMESTER at the Vance Unit, Randy Horsak, a volunteer at the prison, stepped to the front of the classroom. Horsak runs an environmental engineering firm that has hired a number of Vance Unit parolees. After handing out pocket-sized copies of the Book of John, Horsak looked out at the inmates, the newest batch at IFI, and told them how lucky they were: "The Lord, the system—whatever—has given you a tremendous opportunity." 

It's clear that the inmates have been given an opportunity for rehabilitation—a better chance than is offered to most Texas inmates. But the fact that Horsak couldn't decide whether it was the Lord or the State of Texas that had granted this opportunity betrayed the ambiguity that has sparked the legal challenge. 

It's hard to say where the state's role ends and where religion begins at the Vance Unit. Federal courts, weighing accounting records, curriculum studies, legislative procedures, and inmates' testimony, will make that judgment. As a high-ranking official in the White House faith-based initiatives office said to me, constitutionally speaking, with these types of programs "the devil, as it were, is always in the details."


Daniel Brook, a staff writer for The Philadelphia City Paper, last wrote for Legal Affairs about solitary confinement. 

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