mixing government and religion in the arizona state prison.
"Spiritual development is important," Corrections Director Dora Schriro said. "It's clear it contributes to everyone's overall growth and development and promotes the kinds of accountability and responsibility we try to instill. ... Spirituality is one of the places you start."
The goal is to use biblical-based teachings to instill life skills, from spirituality to preparing for and keeping a job, and give inmates a new "filter" through which to make their choices, said William Anderson, executive director of Prison Fellowship in Arizona.
"What changes behavior? Cognition," said Chaplain Ben Davis who works at the Eyman prison. "If you change the way people think, you can change their behavior. - force christianity on the imates?
The annual budget for religious services is $1.7 million.
Article 2, Section 12 of the Arizona Constitution:
No public money or property shall be appropriated for or applied to any religious worship, exercise, or instruction, or to the support of any religious establishment.
Faith: Ray of light for state inmates Arizona finds religions make good path to rehabilitation
Judi Villa The Arizona Republic Feb. 15, 2006 12:00 AM
FLORENCE - Geoffrey Burbank knelt in the corner of a prison chow hall, a small silver hammer medallion on his right shoulder.
Burbank, 32, has been in and out of prison in three states, but this time, he says he has found something that just may change the course of his life: faith. More specifically, Asatr, an ancient Norse religion that espouses family and nine "noble virtues" such as courage, honor, trust and discipline.
"Every other time I got out, it was always get back involved with drugs. Guns and drugs," said Burbank, who studied Asatr for about a year before he knelt to take his oath of allegiance at the Arizona State Prison Complex-Eyman. The hammer on his shoulder represents the legendary magical weapon of the god Thor.
"This changed my outlook on life," Burbank said. "I got something else to look forward to when I get out. Maybe I can stay away from guns and drugs this time."
Although religious services have long been a staple of prison life, officials across the nation are beginning to realize just how important faith can be in rehabilitating inmates. Advocates say just about every religion actually can change an inmate's character and fundamental value system, instilling a different way of looking at the world and making decisions.
As a result, crime could be diminished, the staggering costs of imprisonment could be reduced and communities could become safer.
"Inmates are understanding the value of connecting with their faith to help them turn their lives around, to find some meaning and some hope," said Mike Linderman, administrator of pastoral services for the Arizona Department of Corrections. "Getting them more involved helps them understand how they fit into society and their responsibility to it."
In Arizona, prison religious programs have grown to unprecedented levels in the past two years as services have expanded to reach even the minority of inmates who don't practice the most mainstream religions. Monthly religious services have increased nearly 56 percent, and an estimated 9,000 inmates attend.
Gone are the days when an inmate had to fit into one of five religions - Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jewish or Native American - to worship. Today at all the state's prisons, multifaith gatherings provide a weekly meeting time for inmates who are increasingly adhering to less common faiths like Wicca, Hinduism and Buddhism. In all, 60 religions are practiced by inmates.
In addition, mentors work with inmates before their release and connect them to a faith community that will continue to offer friendship, spiritual guidance and help finding housing and jobs when they are back on the streets. Faith-based mentoring problems now are in place at three Arizona prisons, and a fourth is coming onboard.
"Spiritual development is important," Corrections Director Dora Schriro said. "It's clear it contributes to everyone's overall growth and development and promotes the kinds of accountability and responsibility we try to instill."
At the Eyman prison in Florence, Chaplain Phil Kelley makes his rounds five days a week in the Special Management Unit. Donning a stab vest and goggles for protection, Kelley goes cell to cell talking religion and answering questions about Scriptures.
Outside a cell on death row, Kelley leans close and says a prayer: "Heavenly Father," he begins, "I thank you for this day and the gift of your blessings."
"Most religions do have a morality, a sense of taking care of their families, themselves, their community, their neighbors," Kelley said. "Generally, it's a positive influence."
Hope for the future
Nationwide, nearly 2.3 million people are incarcerated in prisons or jails. Arizona's prisons house more than 33,500 inmates; all but about 4 percent will some day be released.
But roughly two-thirds of the nation's inmates are rearrested within three years of their release, and a quarter return to prison, numbers that seem to indicate something more needs to be done.
"What changes behavior? Cognition," said Chaplain Ben Davis who works at the Eyman prison. "If you change the way people think, you can change their behavior. . . . If you're not connecting them to something, there's no desire to change."
Since coming to Arizona nearly three years ago, Schriro has been implementing a "parallel universe," where inmates engage full time in activities that mirror those of the free world.
Spirituality, along with education and job training, has become a key part of that, and the goal in coming years is to involve at least half of all inmates in religious programs.
The annual budget for religious services is $1.7 million.
"When you're talking about a population that's failed at so many things, you want everyone to get to the same place, which is to be accountable and responsible," Schriro said. "Where they all start varies. Spirituality is one of the places you start. Everybody's going to have to know how to find and get a job when they get out. They also have to know how to use their leisure time and do the right thing even when nobody is looking."
Chaplain Delbert Henderson said that inmates in religious programs have fewer disciplinary problems and that the way they interact with others changes. They find hope for the future, peace and respect for others. Perhaps even more important, "it gives them the opportunity to focus on something other than themselves; it instills values," Henderson said. "They replace old friends and old habits with new habits and a new lifestyle."
Mark Earley, president of Prison Fellowship, based in Virginia, said prison systems across the country have reached a "real sort of crisis point." The costs of housing inmates and building prisons are increasing annually, and recidivism rates continue to be too high. "The philosophy has been to put them in prison, separate them from their communities and their families, and this will send a message that when they get out they will live a different life," Earley said. "That's just not true."
With record numbers of people incarcerated, 724 per 100,000 people nationwide, and more serving time for non-violent crimes fueled by alcohol and drugs, more people are behind bars who truly could be rehabilitated, Earley said.
Five states, but not Arizona, now have separate housing for inmates involved in faith-based rehabilitation programs. The InnerChange Freedom Initiative begins working with inmates 18 to 24 months before release, then continues working with them for six months after their release. Only about 8 percent of program graduates are incarcerated again within two years, Earley said. "People who generally change are people who have gotten to a point where they are broken," he said. "They have tried everything, and they are not able to change the things they do, so they come to Christ. 'God, help me.' "
The goal is to use biblical-based teachings to instill life skills, from spirituality to preparing for and keeping a job, and give inmates a new "filter" through which to make their choices, said William Anderson, executive director of Prison Fellowship in Arizona. "We believe that crime, at its root, is a moral issue," Anderson said. "If they don't have a genuine change of heart, a genuine adjustment of their character and their moral values, ultimately their change is not going to be permanent.
"We talk about education and preparing them for jobs and addressing substance abuse. Those things alone really just make for better educated, more clear-headed criminals, frankly, without that character adjustment. You've got to have all of them in place if you're looking for long-term success."
TJ Byrd, who immersed himself in the Asatr faith after coming to prison 2 years ago, said religion has "turned my life around . . . for the better."
"It has opened my eyes to just about every aspect of my life," said Byrd, 50. "Friendship, camaraderie, the love for my family. Faith and family are foremost."
Across the dining hall at the Eyman prison, seven Wiccan inmates gathered. One talked about working together, about making sure they complete their studies, about practicing patience and keeping their lives in balance.
"The groups teach me how to turn the negative to the positive," said Ronald Durham, 34, who has been practicing the Wicca religion for about a year. "If I wasn't into this religion, which I wasn't out there, I'd go back to the same old crap. . . . Now, I could turn that time into something positive."
Inmate John Butler, 37, said he learned to read and write in prison so he could study Wicca. Butler said that he is already a calmer man and that when he is released in nine more years, his life will be different.
"In our religion, it says do as you will, harm no one," Butler said. "I've learned that everything I put out to other people comes back to me threefold. When I get out, I'll only put out positive so positive can come back to me."