Over the course of decades, reformers have sought to steer juvenile delinquents down the right path by scaring them straight, employing “behavior modification” techniques, or prompting them to consider the impact on victims through “restorative justice.’ Now, Florida is embracing yet another approach, referred to by its promoters as “the Jesus method.”
Beginning today for the next week, 10 of the state’s lockups for young offenders will open their doors to a group of evangelical Christians, who intend to spread God’s message of love and hope to budding criminals by, basically, putting on a show. Among the entertainers: a hip-hop artist named “Test,” a Globetrotter-like basketball handler, and a karate expert who will rest a potato on the back of a volunteer’s neck and cut it in half with a sword, like a samurai warrior, while blindfolded.
“Every performer will say I committed my heart to Jesus Christ and that’s what means everything to me,” said Don Smarto, president of Youth Direct, a Texas-based nonprofit that is organizing the tour, which includes stops at the Palm Beach Regional Juvenile Detention Center; the Florida Institute for Girls in West Palm Beach; and Thompson Academy and the South Pines Juvenile Residential Facility, both located in Pembroke Pines.
At the same time, a national network of 24 Christian faith-based groups called Operation Starting Line will pour into Florida’s adult prisons, reaching 21,000 inmates with a similar show featuring comedians, ex-offenders, musicians and athletes, such as boxer Marvis Frazier, the eldest son of former heavyweight champ “Smokin'” Joe Frazier. Backers of the event include the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Campus Crusade for Christ, Promise Keepers and Prison Fellowship, a national prison outreach program started by former Watergate felon Chuck Colson.
Preparations for the two campaigns began Thursday night at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, where about 300 volunteers were prayed over during a “commissioning banquet.”
Organizers say they will spend time talking individually with the kids, answering questions, distributing spiritual booklets, and sharing meals with them in hopes of turning their lives around.
The God-driven carnival — a first for Florida’s juvenile prisons — is the latest example of the ways in which the administration of Gov. Jeb Bush encourages religious groups to play a role in state programs and institutions, from foster care to education.
On Wednesday, the state opened the first faith-based prison for women in Tampa. Late last year, a religious prison for men, the Lawtey Correctional Institution, debuted in north Florida. Programming is largely, though not exclusively, Christian Protestant.
While the governor sees no threat to the rights of individuals who are not Christian, organizations concerned about preserving the wall between religion and government do. The American Civil Liberties Union, along with the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, view the Lawtey Correctional Institution as unconstitutional and are questioning the wisdom of opening the women’s prison as well.
The ACLU in particular thinks the Bush administration is not as assertive in ensuring that services to help counsel, mentor and educate inmates — whether adults or children — are available without religious strings attached.
“It’s kind of a blind spot on the part of our governor,” said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida. “He’s willing to improve conditions in prison facilities only for those inmates that are willing to accept religious proselytizing.”
In Tallahassee, state officials deny that the administration is giving special access to Christian conservatives.
The Department of Juvenile Justice “has literally thousands of different groups and organizations that come and speak to youth in our care,” said Jacob DiPietre, spokesman for Gov. Bush. “Some talk about the importance faith can play in the youth’s life. Some talk of other topics. But the bottom line is: all come and talk about the importance of changing your life and changing your course.”
The scope of the event planned by Smarto and his collaborators, however, appears to exceed previous outreach efforts. Today through April 25, the Youth Direct campaign will stop at 10 institutions for eight hours each before moving on this summer to the Panhandle and in April 2005 to central Florida. The show comes to the northeastern part of the state in August 2005.
Organizers hope to build relationships and come back to the facilities in future weeks and months to support the youths.
The state is not paying for the event and participation by the juveniles is strictly voluntary, said DJJ spokeswoman Catherine Arnold.
Smarto acknowledged, though, that some children likely will attend just to get a break from their regular routine or because they’re drawn to the theatrics.
“We’re going in really as evangelists,” Smarto said. “That is a word that just means a bearer of good news: that God really cares about them and has a plan for their lives.”
He hopes to enroll many of the youths in a Bible study course conducted through the mail.
Meanwhile, Smarto promised that there will be no fire-and-brimstone sermons during the production. “There is no one saying if you don’t get your act together you’ll go to hell.”