BALTIMORE (AP) – Maryland’s Division of Correction is adopting a nondenominational personal growth program for Christian inmates based on a best-selling book.
A California prison was the first to offer the program last year. It is based on the Rev. Rick Warren’s book “The Purpose-Driven Life,” and California officials credit it with helping to reduce prison violence by nearly 40 percent.
Volunteers from Maryland churches will implement the program for any inmates who choose to attend. More than 125 inmates already have signed up for the first session at the Maryland Correctional Training Center near Hagerstown. Organizers said they hope to offer it in all of Maryland’s 27 prisons as well as for inmates in Washington and Virginia.
A nonprofit, religious group called IIMainstream Inc. in Bowie proposed the program for use in the prison system and is providing the materials with donations and a $5,000 budget.
No state funds are being used for the program, said Mary Ann Saar, the state secretary of the Department of Public Works and Correctional Services, who approved the program for statewide use to help reduce prison violence and help inmates adjust when they’re released.
The program is only open to inmates who registered their religion as Christian, to avoid any appearance of evangelizing. Still, some outside groups are concerned about mixing religion and government.
“The main thing as a Constitutional matter is are you going to treat everybody the same,” said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. “Ideally access should be equal across the board for different religions as well as for secular programs to teach life skills.”
Officials in California tried to link participation in “The Purpose-Driven Life” program to early release and other special advantages, Lynn said. Maryland officials said there are no incentives or advantages for those who participate.