Prison Ministry and the New York Times

Note: This commentary was delivered by Prison Fellowship President Mark Earley.

Regular "BreakPoint" listeners and readers know that a federal judge has ordered a highly successful program for prisoners called the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, or IFI, to shut down because the judge felt it violated the separation of church and state.

Prison Fellowship strongly disagrees. So do the Justice Department, nine state attorneys general, and numerous faith-based organizations. That's why Prison Fellowship is appealing the case and why the others I just mentioned have filed friend-of-the-court briefs with the appeals court on IFI's behalf.

Not surprisingly, however, the New York Times agrees with the judge. On its front page last Sunday, the Times ran the following headline above the fold: "Religion for a Captive Audience, Paid for by Taxes." The headline alone tells you the kind of picture the Times intended to — and, in fact, did — paint: inmates coerced into participating in a government-funded religious program.

But what did the Times not tell us in that article? First, the Times failed to mention that prisoners who participate in the program do so voluntarily. Every potential participant is told about the religious aspects of the program. Participants may leave it at any time without penalty. And they do not need to accept or profess Christianity to graduate. That's why every prisoner who testified at trial said that he was not coerced into enrolling in the program.

Neither did the New York Times tell you about what the judge considered to be "coercion": offering inmates a quality program and the tools they need to succeed on the outside, such as drug treatment, job preparedness, and general education. These are what he regarded as bait to lure unsuspecting prisoners into a Christian program where they can be converted!

The Times did tell you that one Catholic inmate left the program because he felt IFI was hostile to his faith. And while the Times granted that the program does not condone anti-Catholicism — which, of course, it doesn't — it didn't tell you that the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights filed an amicus brief on IFI's behalf.

In its zeal to make it look like the taxpayers are picking up the tab for jailhouse evangelism and indoctrination — their words, not mine — the Times didn't tell readers that Prison Fellowship pays 60% of IFI's costs in Iowa. The other 40% paid by the state of Iowa, pursuant to a competitive bid contract, is used for the non-sectarian or non-religious aspects of the program.

While the Times did note that attorneys general in nine states "fiercely protested" the judge's decision, and that IFI has been "widely praised by correctional officials and politicians," it didn't tell you why.

The reason is that IFI has been proven to help states reduce recidivism, as shown by a study by the University of Pennsylvania. And it helps states to manage corrections costs. In short, state officials like IFI because it works.

The Times article has been picked up by other newspapers across the country. On one hand, I'm glad that IFI is receiving front-page coverage. On the other hand, I'm left feeling that the Times has chosen not to report all the news that's fit to print.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage