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Possible Changes to Faith and Character Based Programs in Prisons

By Gina Jordan


Tallahassee, FL – At their last meeting, the House Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee took up a bill relating to faith and character based programs in prisons. The proposal removes the requirement that such programs have chaplains and other clerical positions.

The bill, sponsored by Representative Darryl Rouson, Democrat of St. Petersburg, adds secular language to the statute regarding faith based programs for inmates.
"It facilitates the inmate for institutional adjustment. It helps the inmate to assume personal responsibility, and it reduces recidivism. It opens up more of the inmates to participate in the program and encourages and seeks to expand upon the volunteer base that supports the inmates in the department and will support them upon their release and reentry."

These programs are already run entirely through a volunteer staff using no state funds. Inmates that qualify may participate in both religious and secular programming on topics like marriage and parenting, money management, interview and job skills, and personal faith.

"The basic premise of this is that you just can't say no to crime, no to a way of life of crime, without saying yes to something else, and that yes is a faith system, a belief system, and works on character building."

Priority is given to inmates who are struggling with substance abuse, but Rouson's measure would open up the program to more of the prison population, without focusing on religion. The Florida Department of Corrections (DOC) runs four prisons known as Faith and Character Based Institutions.

"Once you've captured a person's body, in order to help them not to return, we have to try to find ways to continue capturing their hearts and their minds. And so, what these institutions do is pull on more volunteers. And the difference between the bill this year and what it was last year, last year it was a mandate and it had a huge fiscal impact. And there was huge push back because it was a requirement that such institutions be in every district of DOC. This year, it's more of an encouragement and an acknowledgement that it works and it should be expanded."

After several members of the committee expressed concerns that the bill may actually restrict the faith portion of the program, Corrections Secretary Walt McNeil told them it simply gives the staff more wiggle room to use volunteer civilians as well as chaplains.

"We in the state of Florida are sort of leading the way as it relates to faith and character base and haven't had very many federal challenges to our, some would say, having faith in prisons. Much of that has to do with the fact that we utilize our discretion to make sure that we focus both on faith issues as well as character issues. In fact, this legislation gives up that latitude to do both."

The governor's office says inmates at faith and character based prisons have lower rates of disciplinary action than those housed elsewhere. Representative Eric Eisnaugle, Republican of Orlando, was worried about what this bill might do to change that.

"It sounds like including other entities and organizations and volunteers who aren't related to a religious group is already possible. I have real concerns with eliminating the chaplains and things of that nature. I look forward to hopefully having some amendments to the bill and supporting it in the council, but I can't vote for it today."

Representative Charles McBurney, Republican of Jacksonville, said he understands the intent of the bill, but it needs to be rewritten.

"There is no preclusion that I'm aware of in the law that prevents secular based programs, but I think that eliminating, basically, the faith based programs, which I think is what the legislation does, is a step back, and I too cannot support the bill as written presently."

More members said they didn't like the language of the bill, but that could be amended later. The measure passed the committee. Before reaching the House floor, it needs to go through the Criminal & Civil Justice Policy Council, which has no meetings scheduled.