The InnerChange Freedom Initiative program at the Newton Correctional Facility has been the center of a legal battle waged by the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. The Des Moines Register reports that the Culver Administration (aka “state officials”) has now decided to end the most effective prison program in the state.
State officials will end a Bible-based treatment program at the Newton prison that has been the focus of a five-year federal court battle over the role of religion in government services.
The Iowa Department of Corrections has notified Prison Fellowship Ministries in Virginia that the program, called the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, will be terminated in mid-March, prison spokesman Fred Scaletta said.
Prison Fellowship, which sponsored the Christian-oriented values program for inmates, had a three-year state contract that ended in June. Prison officials granted the organization a one-year extension; donations covered the expenses.
A provision of the agreement allows prison officials to cancel the program if enrollment falls below 60 inmates. That will happen after a March 14 graduation ceremony for 27 prisoners, Scaletta said.
Americans United for the Separation of Church and State in Washington, D.C., has waged a court fight since 2003 against the Newton program. The advocacy group contends the program represents an unconstitutional merger of church and state.
The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis ruled in December that the program advanced religion at government expense and that taxpayer money could not be used to finance the program.
The court case has received national attention as test of President Bush’s push for faith-based initiatives.
Similar treatment programs are sponsored by Prison Fellowship at prisons in Arkansas, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri and Texas. The eight-year-old Newton program has operated solely on donations since last July 1, after Gov. Chet Culver, a Democrat, signed legislation eliminating a state tax money appropriation.
The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned much of the original ruling. They were originally ordered to shut down, and to pay back the $1.5 million in state appropriations money that had been given. In reversing the prior ruling, the Eighth Circuit also rejected the “pervasively sectarian” standard used by Judge Pratt and affirmed that faith-based organizations are not barred from partnering with government simply because they are faith-based.
The Intellectual Conservative weighed in on that decision:
Importantly, the Eighth Circuit panel slapped down Judge Pratt and defended religious liberty and free association. Eight Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Duane Benton’s opinion for the panel (which included Retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor) held that Judge Pratt abused his discretion by accepting the testimony of a law professor/Ph.D./author about the beliefs of Evangelical Christians. Quoting from the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Mitchell v. Helms (2002), Judge Benton wrote that “[a]n inquiry into an organization’s religious views to determine if it is pervasively sectarian ‘is not only unnecessary but also offensive. It is well established, in numerous other contexts, that courts should refrain from trolling through a person’s or institution’s religious beliefs.’”
In his district court opinion, Judge Pratt also took the draconian step of ordering IFI to pay back to the State of Iowa the $1.5 million it received. That money was reimbursement to IFI for operating its prison rehabilitation program for prisoners who willingly chose to participate. IFI’s contracting with the State of Iowa was valid under existing law. There was (and is) strong reason to believe in the constitutionality of funding approximately 40% of the program in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on private-school vouchers under Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002). Judge Pratt even acknowledged there was no evidence of bad faith on the part of IFI or the State of Iowa. Existing case law strongly suggests that equity demands that bad faith be shown before ordering a contracting party to return money it received for services rendered.
Significantly, the Eighth Circuit panel made mincemeat of Judge Pratt’s ruling on this point. The panel observed that Judge Pratt gave no weight to the fact that IFI’s public funding was legal under then-existing law. They found flimsy Judge Pratt’s rationale that IFI should’ve know its program could eventually be considered unconstitutional because of a district court opinion in Texas about a different prison program and a California Dept. of Corrections Attorney opinion. But federal district court opinions are not binding precedent, and the attorney opinion had absolutely no force of law. Flimsy indeed.
Moreover, the Eighth Circuit panel also noted the utter lack of any evidence of bad faith on the part of IFI or the State of Iowa. In fact, the panel cited evidence of the contracting parties’ good faith in securing services for prisoners. They pointed out that Judge Pratt did not even consider evidence by Iowa prison officials suggesting the IFI program “was beneficial and the State received much more value than it paid for.” Additionally, the panel cited Americans United for the Separation of Church and State’s decision not to seek interim injunctive relief to stop the program while the litigation was pending. They maintained that this increased the reasonableness of IFI’s reliance on its payments from the State of Iowa. The panel likewise insisted a contractor’s mere ability to pay back money it received for services is not a sufficient reason to require repayment where contracts are subsequently ruled invalid. To hold otherwise “deters financially sound organizations from contracting with the government.”
Evidently Governor Culver feels that even though this has been resolved by the courts and IFI now operates (not that they were really breaking the law to begin with) within the parameters set by the Eighth Circuit Court that the State of Iowa should not have this program at Newton. His officials told IFI that they could not enroll any new inmates, thus making the drop in enrollment inevitable so they could act on the enrollment clause in the contract. Governor Culver and his administration is not acting in good faith.
This is insane. IFI was operating on donated money. It is the most successful prison treatment program in the state. Studies have shown (see University of Pennsylvania study and one by the State of Texas) that it has dramatically reduced recidivism. In a recent audit compiled on drug treatment program in Iowa Prisons shows that IFI has one of the best. In some of the Department of Corrections run programs recidivism actually increased. You can also read a related article in Corrections Today.
Evidently the Culver administration would rather build more prisons than reduce recidivism. This program was effective. It was voluntary. It is open to any inmate regardless of faith, and no one was coerced to join. This successful program will end even though it has dramatically impacted the lives of Iowa citizens (I know a few graduates of the program), and other Iowa prisons had asked for IFI to operate there as well.
If you live in Iowa – contact Governor Culver and remind him that he needs to make decisions that are in the best interest of Iowa’s citizens. If this decision making paradigm of his continues he is well on the way of becoming Iowa’s first one-term governor in a long time (hasn’t happened in my lifetime anyway).
Pasts Posts on IFI: