Faith programs change prisoners’ outlook

In an effort to help ease prison overcrowding by providing opportunities for inmates to improve their behavior and reduce recidivism, faith-based criminal justice programs are springing up in correctional institutions around the country. An Associated Press series on prison overcrowding shines a spotlight on this phenomenon, highlighting several programs in the Oklahoma region that encourage inmates to turn to God.

The one-year motivational course is among a growing list of alternative and diversionary criminal justice programs designed to either direct offenders away from costly prison stays through specialized drug and mental health courts or change the behavior of inmates — changes that can lead to less misconduct in prison, fewer repeat offenders and lower prison costs.

“That’s what we’re all about — changing criminal thinking,” said Millicent Newton-Embry, warden at Mabel Bassett.

Since a robbery conviction four years ago, Mabel Bassett inmate Jimmie Jones said she has struggled to cope with her anger. “Personal issues that I didn’t want to accept,” said Jones, 34, of McAlester, who is enrolled in the faith-based program.

Jones said her anger used to boil over into fights with other inmates at the women’s prison. Participation in the prison’s faith program has helped her become calmer.

“Before this program I wanted to change but I had no direction,” Jones said. “I’ve learned that it’s all right to be angry. You’ve just got to control it. You’ve got to find a way to channel.

The programs are not without their detractors, with some groups saying it’s a breach of the establishment clause in the First Amendment:

Critics of the legislation have said it may violate the constitutional separation between church and state and give faith-based groups some of lawmakers’ oversight authority over the state Department of Corrections.

Last year, a federal judge ruled that a Bible-based prison program at a prison in Iowa violated the First Amendment’s freedom of religion clause by using state funds to promote Christianity to inmates.

Read more about the programs here.

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