The Jesus Jail

Against a backdrop of "Amen!"s and clapping hands, and a three-piece band playing an upbeat number, the 12-member choir starts in, shaking tambourines and swaying back and forth as they sing: "Jesus/ Mighty God/ Mighty God in heaven/ Every moment let's call out your name/ I will worship you all my life ..."

The 90-minute service that follows is much the same as you might find in any charismatic congregation. There's some preaching, some singing, quite a bit of testifying about the wondrous acts God has performed in the lives of the 160 attendees -- all of whom are male, most of whom are black. There are a few bored stares, but there are just as many men clapping, singing along, pounding their chests and waving their worn Bibles in the air.

But this is no middle-class, suburban church with parents bringing their kids to learn the Ten Commandments, sing hymns and kill time before the football game begins. This is a prison run by the state of Florida.

The revival hall is the gymnasium of the Lawtey Correctional Institute, a medium-security prison halfway between Gainesville and Jacksonville. In Decem-ber, Gov. Jeb Bush dedicated Lawtey as the first "faith-based," government-run prison in the country. "I can't think of a better place to reflect on the love of our Lord Jesus than to be here at Lawtey Correctional," Bush, a devout Catholic, told the inmates. Bush added that he and his brother, President George W. Bush, agree that the best way to rehabilitate prisoners is to "lead them to God."

The prison isn't officially about worshipping Jesus, or pushing Jesus on a captive audience. That would violate the separation of church and state. Lawtey employs a nonspecific sense of faith and spirituality in an effort to lower the state's 38 percent recidivism rate.

The American Civil Liberties Union has threatened a lawsuit, saying the prison blatantly violates church-state separation. State officials defend Lawtey's constitutionality by pointing out that volunteers, not taxpayers, provide religious materials and instruction, and that prisoners aren't forced to attend services that offend them.

That's the key, Department of Corrections spokesman Sterling Ivey insists. Prisoners are free to transfer out if they become uncomfortable. "They're here because they want to be here."

But it's not that simple. Questions of constitutionality aside -- and there are plenty -- the reality is social conservatives need Lawtey to work. They're desperate to claim success in the ongoing battle to convince people that marrying government programs to religious groups is a good idea. Artificially or not, the state has set Lawtey up to succeed, which is important to remember when Gov. Bush begins praising its success.

'The media's coming'

Lawtey, Fla., isn't much of a town. There's one traffic light, a few businesses, no hotels. It appears to exist for two reasons: the jail, and as a speed trap. (In 1995, AAA designated Lawtey as such along with Waldo, a nearby north Florida town -- the only two cities so named in the United States). The nearest hotel is in Starke, seven miles to the south, a town famous for housing Florida's death row.

It's an execution, in fact, that brings me and six media colleagues to Lawtey this Tuesday afternoon. Ivey scheduled this "media day" at Lawtey -- the third since its faith-based conversion -- to coincide with Johnny Robinson's execution, Feb. 4.

"All day, they've been trying to clean this place," Lawtey inmate Ronald

Derosa tells me. "All day, they've been telling us, 'The media's coming, the media's coming.'"

Which might explain why everything is so tidy. The prison grounds are immaculate. The grass is neatly cut, the sidewalks swept. There isn't a piece of litter to be seen.

At 3 p.m. the assembled media gather in the prison's administrative building to meet with Ivey and Dwight White, the warden. They've had a rough day so far: An inmate at a nearby work-release unit White oversees was kidnapped at gunpoint from a bus and disappeared for several hours, resurfacing later at the hospital.

White is a tall, imposing man in a light suit and cowboy boots, a Jehovah's Witness with two decades of corrections experience under his belt. And as we tour the prison -- from a classroom in which soon-to-be-released inmates learn money management, to the mess hall, to a dorm -- he explains the best part about bringing in faith-based groups.

"They sponsor the programs themselves," he says.

Fact is, the state has drastically cut funding for prisons across the board. Gone are the GED classes, computer classes, vocational classes, even television antennas. The faith-based groups, and their army of volunteers, bring these things back. Such programs are essential to helping inmates live crime-free on the outside.

White's two chaplains are tasked with finding faith-based organizations. To date they've brought in more 600 volunteers, and plan to add 1,400 more by April. "Even when the state had funding `for prison programs`, we still solicited volunteers," White says. "`though` it wasn't on that magnitude. We raised the bar out of necessity."

Stacking the deck

While the image of hardened criminals turning their lives around with a dose of faith may appeal to the public, the fact is that the Florida Department of Corrections is doing a bit of cherry-picking. Lawtey has never been a place for the hard-core and dangerous; instead, its population is considered safe enough that members routinely work in the community. In fact, it opened in 1973 as a work-release center, and became a real prison four years later. Most inmates here have convictions for offenses like burglary and drug possession.

"If they're troublemakers, they don't send them here," says senior chaplain William Wright.

Newcomers, in fact, are required not to have any disciplinary reviews -- called DRs -- for misbehavior for three months before they transfer here; most have been clean for longer than that. Even one DR can send you packing; already "three or four" inmates have been booted out, White says.

The fact that these are model prisoners who are less likely to re-offend is important to keep in mind when the state releases data on this experiment.

Although nearly a dozen prisons now have faith-based dorms, the programs haven't been around long enough to determine how successful they are. The expectations are high, however.

"Inmates in a faith-based dorm are not a staff problem," Ivey says. In general, he adds, you see "`less` recidivism, `better` inmate behavior and fewer staff problems based on facilities like this."

"One of the things I've seen `since Lawtey went faith-based` is the inmates wanting more and more programs," Wright says. "Before it was a place where you just did your time."

We tour Dorm C, which resembles a military barracks. There are no cells, just four double-decker beds crammed into the dorm's 10 pods, each of which has a name along the lines of "Men of Truth," or "Men of Courage." It's not a terribly frightening place, but there is a creepy Promise Keepers vibe and absolutely no privacy. This is prison, after all.

After a routine inmate count, the 80 residents of Dorm C file out for dinner. From there, and for the first time, the media get access to the prison yard, and a chance to talk to the people Lawtey is designed to change.

The rules

"It's all bullshit. It's all Christian. They don't respect religions. If you're not a Christian, you go sit in the library while they hollerin' 'Jesus!' Don't let them whitewash you."

So says Michael E. Wynn, an inmate from Orlando here on cocaine-possession charges.

I lead Wynn to a grassy spot, away from the prying ears of a shadowing corrections officer. "Normally, they're not allowed to leave the concrete," the guard, Robert Love, says. He makes an exception, though I'm not allowed to give Wynn my business card. That's "contraband."

Wynn calls himself a "Hebrew Rastafarian," a faith not found in the DOC's list of faith groups. He says he was in the faith-based dorm before the prison converted, but got kicked out. "I wasn't a Christian. I wasn't doing my devotions," he explains.

He's at least partially right. At the community meeting we attend later that night, three Muslim inmates are siphoned off into an adjacent room, while the Christians sing along to a full band and enjoy the preaching of an ordained minister. No imam is coming for them tonight, and Wright, a Baptist, is in charge of leading their spiritual journey.

Before the prison went faith-based, Wynn says, things were more laid-back. "It got worse for us the way the procedures went. We can't watch Jerry Springer, we can't watch nothing but news and sports `under the faith-based rules`."

A few minutes later, I mingle outside the prison's barbershop where Love -- who moonlights as a Lawtey police officer -- is explaining what constitutes "illegal" hair and fingernails. Long fingernails are weapons, he says. With an obvious, if off-putting, glee, he walks around the yard, ordering inmates to get their nails cut. Hair is not allowed over the ears. "With the blacks, it's harder to tell, because they can cram `their hair` behind their ears," Love says.

There are a half-dozen inmates in line awaiting haircuts, and for the next hour or so we chat, though they make it clear they don't regard Love highly. "We end up in the box if we say too much," says Juan Perez, eyeing the guard cautiously.

More than a few label the prison "fake-based."

"The only sponsors are Christians," complains Derosa. On that point, he's right. Three organizations sponsor five of the prison's eight dorms (three haven't found sponsors yet), and all are Christian.

Even if they don't like the program's Christian elements, most inmates won't transfer out. They have families nearby, and don't want to risk being transferred far away and miss out on visitation. A few also tell me that's exactly what prison officials threatened when they were looking for volunteers: "They told us to sign `up for the program` or be shipped to the Panhandle," says Demmetris Edge.

Not true, says assistant warden Robert Flores. "No, sir, they was asked. If they didn't `want to stay`, they wasn't threatened. We tried to accommodate them."

But the biggest complaint from the men on Lawtey's yard concerns each dorm's council of inmates, which recommends disciplinary actions to dorm chaplains for inmates who break faith-based rules like no gambling, no card-playing after designated hours and no smoking in the bathrooms.

In other prisons, the state prohibits inmates from having any authority over each other, lest resentment turn into violence. From an administrative standpoint, that's the case at Lawtey too. Only the administrative panel, comprised of prison staffers, can issue a DR or get an inmate kicked out.

But each dorm's inmate council and each pod's leaders, called "encouragers," can recommend to the dorm chaplain that misbehaving inmates be punished via essay-writing or extra cleaning details.

Many prisoners, says Edge, are "about to fight. `Corrections` officers are using the institution's rules and the faith-based rules and coming down on us like a ton of bricks. Officers are cussing you out. They're trying to push too hard to make it seem like it's working when it ain't."

'Spiritual is not enough'

Beaches Chapel Church of Neptune Beach started its Lawtey ministry a decade ago. Steve McCoy, pastor of Beaches Chapel, had a long-lost friend doing time in the prison, and began ministering to his friend, who had "given himself back to Christianity." His visits grew into Saturday night church services six times a year, and in 1996, his congregation started a Lawtey Christmas project, giving 1,000 gift bags of shampoo, writing pads, candy bars and a New Testament to the inmates of Lawtey and a nearby work-release program. So, in 2002, when the prison wanted to add a faith-based dorm -- which nine other state prisons besides Lawtey have -- the 800-member Beaches Chapel was the natural choice.

"I think there was a few skeptics," McCoy says. Even he wondered if the church could pull it off. "We can do this thing, but can we maintain `volunteer support`? It's not only being maintained, it's gaining momentum."

In March 2003, Lawtey's B Dorm went faith-based. Over the next year, the church pumped $31,000 into Lawtey, McCoy says. And on Feb. 28, McCoy will graduate its first 40 inmates from the program. When the entire prison went faith-based in December, Beaches expanded its reach, sponsoring C Dorm as well.

Of the first 242 Lawtey volunteers listed in a state database, 104 came from Beaches Chapel. McCoy says his church even hired an off-duty corrections officer to teach a computer class.

There are two other dorm sponsors: Miracle Mission of Hope from Stuart, which sponsors two; and the nondenominational Church of Jacksonville, which sponsors one. Right now, there are three unsponsored dorms, but Beaches Chapel is providing their faith-based and life-skills curriculum until sponsors are found, possibly by April, White says. Sponsors provide religious services, alcohol- and drug-abuse counseling, mentoring programs, life-skills courses that state lawmakers cut, GED courses, computer and vocational programs, etc.

Beaches Chapel doesn't focus entirely on religion. "Our goal is that the men won't go back to prison," McCoy says. "The spiritual is not enough. That's not enough when you get out. You've got to have a job. `Religion` is only one component of what we do."

Proselytizing is forbidden at Lawtey -- it would violate church-and-state rules -- and Wright tells me that a few once-curious fundamentalist churches declined to help at Lawtey when they learned that.

"All religions teach that we need to share our faith," McCoy says. "Our goal is not to proselytize the compound. Our goal is to discuss and mentor the men given into our charge."

The non-Christians in his dorms "partake of everything else we provide, which exceeds anything the state provides," he says. I ask him how he'd feel if the situation were reversed, if he were sponsoring a room full of Muslims or if a Muslim group sponsored a majority-Christian dorm.

"One man in my dorm switched to Islam last year," he says, and that was OK with him. "We're not there to control faith and decisions. Our goal is to model the Gospel."

Jesus, 24-7

Despite the state's portrait of Lawtey as a generically religious, faith-based (whatever your faith may be) prison -- an odd idea, considering Lawtey sits squarely in the Bible Belt -- the population is overwhelmingly Christian. According to DOC records, of the prison's 810 residents, 537 align themselves with protestant or evangelical faiths, or as Messianic Jews who adhere to Judaism's tenets but believe Jesus was the Messiah. Of these, Baptists are the largest subgroup, claiming 323 members. Ninety-nine others are Roman Catholic.

Tellingly, the largest non-Christian category is "none," with 89. "Unknown" has 18. There are also 18 Muslims, 11 Jehovah's Witnesses, three Mormons, two Buddhists, two followers of Native American religions and one Wiccan.

Ivey says the numbers reflect the statewide prison population, and White emphasizes that he doesn't control who enters his razor-wire walls. Tallahassee makes those decisions, he says, with no regard for quotas. That would be illegal. Further, once he gets new prisoners, he assigns them to dorms based solely on available bed space, not on who or what they pray to. That, too, would be illegal.

Like the population, the religious instruction is overwhelmingly Protestant. Though Lawtey does attract a few volunteers from minority religions, none have sponsored dorms or invested on a larger level. All inmates have access to daily chapel and prayer services.

If you're Muslim, you get one weekly prayer service Friday afternoons, and a one-hour video every Wednesday. If you're Native American, you get a weekly two-hour class on Wednesday. If you're Catholic, you get a Wednesday morning service. If you're a Jehovah's Witness, you have a 9 a.m. Friday service.

Interestingly, the possibility for a Muslim or Buddhist sponsor to a mostly Christian dorm is there, though it's doubtful that's the kind of setup the Bush brothers envision when pushing for faith-based institutions.

"We want all the dorms sponsored by April 1," says White, the warden. "We don't care who `sponsors them`. They could be non-religious."

Fact is, the prison can't discriminate. So if you're a Muslim (or a Buddhist, or a Scientologist, or a Wiccan for that matter) with some volunteers and the resources to provide life-skills training, you could throw a wrench into Gov. Bush's plan for a Jesus-centered jailhouse utopia.

More church, less state

The day Bush's faith-based prison hit the papers, the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State both threatened a lawsuit. Later, Americans United for Separation of Church and State placed a public information request asking for all documents related to Lawtey, another step toward legal action.

But before any lawsuit is filed, civil libertarians are watching a test case in Iowa, in which Watergate-conspirator-turned-prison-minister Charles Colson's Inner Change program receives state dollars to teach fundamentalist Christianity to prison inmates. There are some differences: Colson's program is only open to fundamentalist Christians, while Lawtey allows in at least some members of different religions; Inner Change will kick you out of the prison if you don't participate in the religious activities, whereas Lawtey won't.

But both also share some constitutional problems. As White and McCoy point out, the volunteers at Lawtey provide services inmates in other prisons don't have, which could be problematic.

"Doesn't it seem unfair that a prisoner in a non-faith-based prison can't get that level of service?" asks Americans United spokesman Robert Boston. "We wonder why those guys `in other prisons` can't make it."

From a legal standpoint, if the state is providing or denying services on the basis of one's participation (or lack thereof) in a religious program, that might not fly.

And, referencing how the state has positioned Lawtey for an arguably artificial success, Boston sees Lawtey as a pawn in a much larger game. "There's no good empirical data that this faith-based stuff works," he says. "`Faith-based advocates` have no studies. They can cook one up here. It will help them immensely with `public relations`. This program's designed to provide that."

Leaving Lawtey

I didn't get to stay for the entire Tuesday-night service. After an hour, Ivey informed me and my media colleagues that it was time to go, and that we couldn't watch the rest of the service. As we're ushered out, I chat with Dwight White about how his religious beliefs play into his job.

He's a Jehovah's Witness, a very evangelistic faith. And while he agrees it's sometimes hard to segregate his views from his job, he mostly handles of the prison's administrative end, and really doesn't deal with religious matters.

William Wright, the chaplain, does. Before Lawtey, he had the unenviable job of playing chaplain to the condemned, and in his year serving on death row saw five executions. A Baptist, he's in charge of recruiting volunteers. Fellow Baptists sometimes worry about crossing denominational lines, he says, or not being allowed to proselytize. "I let a Baptist group know they don't have to take care of the Muslims," he says. "That's my job."

As for proselytizing, that rule affects not just the volunteers, but the chaplains and prison staff as well. For Wright, though, the program allows faith-based groups a chance for a sort of silent evangelism: "They `other people of faith` can see your religion, they don't have to hear your religion."

In other words, if faith-based groups bring in GED classes, computers, TV antennas, music classes, musical instruments and so forth, then their actions might speak louder than words, and they can attract a few converts without overtly trying.

There are plenty of gray areas any time church and state are (however loosely) married, and Lawtey is no exception. In theory, the prison treats all religions equally, but in practice, it doesn't really work out that way.

As the state splits hairs to legally justify its faith-based prison, Boston says too many people miss the big picture: "We've lost sight of the principle that, whatever you believe about God, or whether you think God exists, should be utterly irrelevant in your dealings with the state."


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