Originally created 05/15/04

Florida prison uses faith to change lives



LAWTEY, Fla. - For 22 years, Curtis Cason has been unable to shake the cocaine demons he blames for putting him behind bars six times.

But now, the 47-year-old contends his participation in the nation's first faith-based prison, at Lawtey Correctional Institution, will give him the tools to remain clean and free when he's released in about three years.

"Since I got here, there have been great changes," said Mr. Cason, who is in Lawtey for yet another drug conviction.

He works in the prison's chapel library and would like to work with at-risk children after he's released.

"My commitment to Christ is a lot stronger," he said.

From the outside, Lawtey looks much like any other prison. Razor wire atop tall fences sparkles in the sunshine. But it differs in its programs. Along with regular prayer sessions, the facility offers religious studies, choir practice, religious counseling and other spiritual activities seven days a week.

Lawtey, about 30 miles southwest of Jacksonville, was transformed in December from a regular prison to one welcoming inmates who seek a religious life, regardless of faith. Participation among the 750 inmates is voluntary - they are free to go back to regular prison life elsewhere.

Another faith-based prison for women opened in mid-April near Tampa at Hillsborough Correctional Institution. It will eventually house more than 300 women. There's also been a faith-based dormitory for several years at Tomoka Correctional Institution, a men's prison near Daytona Beach.

Criticized by civil liberties groups as mixing church and state, the faith-based institutions are a pet project of Gov. Jeb Bush and Corrections Secretary James Crosby, who hope they'll reduce recidivism.

In fiscal 2002, the state spent more than $1.3 billion to house more than 73,000 inmates. About 44 percent of the inmates admitted that year already had done a previous stint in a Florida prison.

The Lawtey prison, down a tree-lined road, is home to inmates from 32 different denominations, including Christians, Jews and Muslims. About half of the inmates identify themselves as Baptists. There also are 132 Roman Catholics, 11 professing American Indian religions and even three Wiccans.

Programs include anger management, managing finances, overcoming addiction and resum preparation. A key feature is a mentoring system that pairs inmates with people on the outside who can help them get over difficult times after release.

To date, only 16 inmates have decided Lawtey wasn't for them and transferred.

There's no requirement that inmates believe in God, but they must have a belief they can turn their lives around. To be eligible, inmates must be nearing release within about three years, have clean prison records and request to come to Lawtey.

Inmates and corrections officers agree that the atmosphere at Lawtey is safer for both sides. Mr. Cason said that in other prisons, inmates constantly steal from other prisoners, but he hasn't had that happen at Lawtey. He also says an inmate at Lawtey is treated more like a human being than in other institutions.

William Wright, the chief chaplain at Lawtey, said the foundation of the faith-based programs is character development.

"These guys know they are going to get out," said the Rev. Wright, of the Christian Family Chapel in south Jacksonville. "We don't want them coming back. If they do, they can't be the husbands, fathers and brothers they need to be."

Corrections officials from several states have looked at Florida's program, including a Georgia delegation that recently toured Lawtey.

Not everyone thinks the program is a good idea, believing it crosses the line separating church and state.

"Essentially, Florida now has set up two faith-based prisons, but does not have the constitutional right to set up either one of them," said Barry Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State in Washington, D.C.