Faith-Based Prison Opens

TALLAHASSEE – Hillsborough County is now home to the nation’s first faith-based prison for women, continuing a push by Gov. Jeb Bush to give religious organizations a greater role in Florida social services.

Bush announced Thursday that the Hillsborough Correctional Institution, a 300-bed facility on County Road 672 in Riverview, will house only women who apply from elsewhere in the state prison system.

A similar facility for men opened in December in Lawtey.

Bush said that Corrections Secretary James Crosby “thought it would be good to have a women’s prison, and this one is of the right size, the right geography, the right location; it had all the right criteria to be successful.”

The Hillsborough site formerly housed young male offenders, who have been relocated to other facilities. The women began arriving Wednesday, and about 100 were expected to be processed by tonight.

Bush said no state funds will be spent on delivery of faith- based programs.

Currently, 33 percent of Florida inmates are back in prison within two years of their release. With the goal of reducing that recidivism rate, the Hillsborough inmates will be offered life skills classes such as anger management and parenting, along with vocational training and religious services beyond what is offered in traditional prisons.

“These are inmates that are going to be released back into our communities, and they want to change their belief mechanism,” said Sterling Ivey, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections. “They do not want to return to prison. They do that by investing in a higher power and changing their true belief system. They are changing their character as they prepare for release.”

Bush’s faith-based push in the corrections arena has drawn the attention of other states. It also has drawn the attention of critics such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

“There are grave constitutional issues whenever religion serves as the basis for setting up any public facility, whether it’s a school, a prison, a housing project or anything else government can do,” said Barry Lynn, executive director of the Washington-based group. “Your openness to religion should be irrelevant to your participation in any government program.”

The group has sued an Iowa prison for using state funds on a Christian-oriented ministry. It is seeking records from the Florida Department of Corrections on the Lawtey operation, and a suit could follow, Lynn said.

He disputed the contention that state funding is not being used for faith-based programs.

“Who’s keeping records? Who’s transferring the prisoners?” Lynn said. “This is not coming about by magic, this is coming about by spending tax dollars.”

The First Amendment of the Constitution provides the basis for the separation of church and state.

Ivey said the corrections department is “cognizant of the legal ramifications of what we’re doing. However, we’re not letting it stop us from delivering the mission.”

To the applause of members of religious organizations at a Capitol symposium on Thursday, Bush said of the prison program: “It is voluntary, it is constitutionally sound, it is the right thing to do, and we are going to do it in a way that will be a model for the country.”

Inmates can apply to be housed at the Lawtey or Hillsborough prisons if they are deemed to have no disciplinary problems.

Faith is not a prerequisite, nor is any particular religion, said Ivey, noting that atheists can and do participate.

The inmate programs at the prisons are handled by volunteer organizations. Bush said about 300 such groups eventually would be providing services at the Hillsborough prison.

One of those will be Abe Brown Ministries, the Tampa- based organization that counsels inmates, former offenders and their families. Robert Blount, the ministry’s deputy chief executive, said his organization will complement secular programs offered at the prison with the biblical perspective.

Blount said studies have shown that inmates who take advantage of religious offerings within prisons have fewer disciplinary problems.

“Those who are very serious about their faith are very committed to changing their lives, doing the right thing and getting on the right path,” he said.

Bush has started several faith-based initiatives with the aim of strengthening families and marriages and improving children’s lives. His efforts mimic those of his brother President Bush, who has created a White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

“Government will never be the sole answer to the problems that exist in our society,” the governor said Thursday.

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