By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 29, 2006; A02
The Justice Department plans to set aside cellblocks at up to half a dozen federal prisons for an ambitious pilot program to prepare inmates for release. But it has produced an outcry by saying that it wants a private group to counsel the prisoners according to a single faith.
The plans do not specify what that faith must be, but they appear to rule out secular counseling or programs that offer inmates guidance in a variety of faiths.
The Washington-based advocacy group Americans United for Separation of Church and State charged in a letter to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales that the Justice Department's Bureau of Prisons has tailored its bidding requirements to fit one particular program: an immersion in evangelical Christianity offered by Charles W. Colson's Prison Fellowship Ministries.
Outlining 10 ways in which the Bureau of Prisons' request for proposals from private contractors dovetails with Prison Fellowship's "InnerChange" program, Americans United contended that the plan is unconstitutional and urged Gonzales to withdraw it. Gonzales has not responded to the April 19 letter, Americans United said.
Independent experts on constitutional law asked by The Washington Post to review the bidding documents also questioned the plan's legality.
"There are all sorts of gray areas in the interpretation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. This doesn't seem to be in the gray area," said Duke University law professor Erwin Chemerinsky. "This seems to favor religion over non-religion, and some religions over other religions. By wanting to fund only one religion, I think it runs afoul of what even the most conservative justices would be willing to tolerate."
Douglas Laycock of the University of Texas School of Law said he believes that "you can run religious programs in federal prisons" and that they "are highly promising." But he said the plan for taxpayer-funded counseling in a single faith, without any obvious provision for a secular alternative, is "problematic."
"One of the questions you have to ask is, 'Does the regular prison program do anything comparable to prepare prisoners for reentry?' " Laycock said. "I don't know the answer, but I've read that most prisons don't do much of anything. So in fact there may be no secular equivalent, and if the only way to get preparation for release is to go into a 'single-faith' program, that seems to be coercion of religion."
Department of Justice spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said the plan is noncoercive -- and constitutional -- because participation will be voluntary and the inmates who choose to take part will receive "no reduction in their sentence . . . no better facilities, same food, same privileges and disciplinary rules."
"In fact," Roehrkasse said in an e-mail, "chances are good that if they apply and are accepted for [the program] they must be moved farther away from home to participate, meaning they probably receive no family visits for the 18 month term of the program."
Roehrkasse said the bidding requirements were not tailored to Prison Fellowship Ministries. "Any and all organizations -- of any faith or none -- are eligible and invited to submit a proposal," he said.
On March 30, the Bureau of Prisons put out a formal request for proposals from private contractors to run the pre-release program, which it has named Life Connections. It held a meeting with possible bidders on April 18 and has set a May 16 deadline for proposals.
Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman Traci L. Billingsley said $3 million has been appropriated for the program. She said it is possible that he bureau could approve several proposals and set up, say, a Roman Catholic program at one prison, a Jewish program at another and an evangelical Protestant program at a third.
"It's early to speculate, but we hope we'll have multiple contractors and multiple locations," she said. She added that she did not know whether inmates would be allowed to transfer between prisons to participate in a program of their choice.
Several federal prisons currently have multifaith programs in which inmates can select the faith they wish to study. This is the first time that the Bureau of Prisons has attempted to set up reentry programs built around a single faith, Billingsley said.
The request for proposals said the government "intends to make multiple awards for the provision of single-faith, residential reentry programs at one or more pilot site locations."
It said the purpose of the program is to "facilitate personal transformation for the participating inmates, and thereby reduce recidivism." It required contractors to "match inmates with personal mentors" from a "faith community" or other support groups, and it listed 10 "goal areas," including "spiritual development."
Mark Earley, president of Prison Fellowship Ministries, said it operates single-faith residential prison programs in six states and is "very interested" in the federal program, but has not decided whether to submit a proposal. He said his organization did not have any advance input.
"We didn't even know it was going to happen -- we just heard about it through the grapevine," he said.
© 2006 The Washington Post Company