Georgia trying new faith-based program at state prisons

HAWKINSVILLE, Ga. – Georgia officials are trying a new faith-based program at six state prisons, which they hope will help inmates stay out of trouble once they are released.

The program seeks to teach inmates personal responsibility, ethics, life skills, tolerance and respect for themselves and others.

Already, 444 inmates have entered the program at Pulaski State Prison. The program has also being established at prisons in Walker, Habersham, Macon, Lowndes and Calhoun counties. Officials plan to start a faith-based program in all state prisons.

Most Georgia prisons employ chaplains, and inmates attend Bible study and worship services. But the introduction of an intensive 12-week program is a first in the state.

The faith-based dorms at Pulaski State Prison look and feel like a regular prison. There are cells and guards standing watch.

But there are also differences. The yelling, cursing and fights that are common in the general population are rare there. Inmates attend classes, where they may learn how to dress for a job, communicate better with their families or cope with adversity.

“If you’re in other dorms, you have a tendency to get caught up in other people’s chaos,” said Michelle Allen, 33, who is serving time for robbery. “We’re all here with the goal of becoming better people.”

Drug abuse led Angela DeSimone, 31, to a seven-year prison sentence for burglary. In prison since 2002, she has been written up nine times for fighting and disobeying guards. But when she heard officials were starting a faith-based dorm at the prison, she signed up.

“I think this program is going to do wonders for me,” DeSimone said. “I can see the change in me already in terms of not wanting to get in trouble. I want to do the right thing for once in my life.”

To qualify for the program, an inmate must have a record clear of behavioral problems for the preceding 90 days. But a single infraction such as fighting, stealing or failing to follow orders, is an automatic ticket back to the general population.

Of the program’s inmates at Pulaski, 317 are Protestants, 33 are Catholics, 29 are Muslim, five are Jehovah’s Witnesses and one is Wiccan. Another 59 claim no religious affiliation.

But critics say there are no studies that prove the effectiveness of faith-based programs and that they unconstitutionally mix government and religion.

Iowa faces a lawsuit by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. The group claims the state is violating the U.S. Constitution by setting up a faith-based dorm and paying a ministry to work with inmates. The group also claims prisoners who participate get special privileges, such as television access and free phone calls.

“There have been studies on what works in prison _ intensive rehabilitation programs that include a variety of components,” said Ayesha Khan of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. “That’s not true with these religious programs. So what does that mean? That what they have going for them is that they’re cheap?”

Khan said her organization was monitoring Georgia and other states to make sure their programs included people regardless of religious beliefs and that taxpayer money was not used to support them.

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