Christian right evolves! How prison reform went mainstream

Christian prison policy group tells Salon about the truth behind the right's shift (and whether they hire gays)

Published March 14, 2014 12:30PM (EDT)

Rick Perry                            (AP/Susan Walsh)
Rick Perry (AP/Susan Walsh)

This year’s CPAC – including a panel with right-wing heavyweights Grover Norquist and Rick Perry and ex-offender-turned-reformer Bernie Kerik – placed a new spotlight on increasing conservative dissent from the old “tough on crime” prison policy consensus. That shift toward less punitive policy has been welcome news for Prison Fellowship, the group started by former Nixon aide Chuck Colson after he served time for obstructing justice in the Watergate scandal.

“You’re starting to see it be a mainstream conversation,” said Craig DeRoche, who directs Prison Fellowship’s public policy arm, Justice Fellowship. Salon sat down with DeRoche at CPAC, where his group came to make the reform case to fellow conservatives. What follows is a condensed version of our conversation, on why the center of gravity has shifted, what’s next for prison reform, and how the Christian conservative Prison Fellowship approaches controversial questions around marijuana legalization, federal funding, religious coercion and homosexuality.

What, if anything, has surprised you at this conference?

What’s surprised me is the breadth and depth of support of attendees for criminal justice reform. It’s becoming a mainstream issue in conservative audiences … Now with much of the attendees, it’s like you’re talking about a tax cut: They say, “Sure we’re for that …

And you say, “Wow -- for the last 30 years you weren’t.”

How do you explain that change?

Hard work, you know. Shoe leather, person-to-person conversations, and I think some pioneering, you know, conservative leaders …

For the last 30 years, people would say, “lock ‘em up, throw away the key, no redemption.” And then, if you pulled [them] aside once they got offstage, and said, “Are those your values,” they’d say, “No, but that’s what my politics are.” What’s happened is we’re allowing people to talk to their values, and showing them that can be politically successful.

How much of the attention to prison reform do you think has to do with state budget questions?

I believe that that was a catalyst for forcing this conversation. I was speaker of the House in Michigan. I had a rule that what succeeded was what was the least painful thing for people to do. So tax increases, spending cuts or structural reform … When they knew that their residents were hurting so much that tax increases were impossible, and the spending cuts that had taken place for a series of years would become too painful ... they got down to these structural government reforms. And prison reforms had been sitting there untouched -- other than [their] growth -- over 30 years. So it was a good target …

People in political office in the states knew that it needed to do more than save money. It needed to improve public safety or at least keep it the same, or they never would have talked about it. Because it would have been too painful … Every proposal had to be in touch with their values. And so they worked with organizations like Justice Fellowship and others, to say … How do I get there? And after three or four years of that, you’re starting to see it be a mainstream conversation.

What are the main forces or constituencies in the way of the kinds of reforms you’re looking for?

The people that were in the way of the reforms the past 30 years were the social conservatives … Now it’s the social conservatives taking the lead, in many cases, on the reforms themselves … As they lead with that, the progressives, the liberals, the libertarians and the economic conservatives were saying, “Where have you been for 30 years?” And so as they come forward, that’s what’s uniting the coalition.

So who is your opposition now?

Our opposition now is a very comfortable and well-known opposition that I’ve had – you know, that we’ve worked with – for 30 years, which are the people that work with the government, that are paid to do what they currently do today. I’m not saying that they’re bad people – I’m just saying change always instills fear and resistance …

Whether it be the government employees that work in prosecution, or the government employees of law enforcement, or the government employees of corrections … there’s resistance to it. But in many cases, I wouldn’t call it resistance or objection – just, you know, varying levels of concern.

What do you think is doable this year in terms of prison reform?

In the states, what’s doable is a continuation of what I would call the restoration of [ex-offenders’] rights in general. Because what that does is it reduces the burden on government -- makes government less expensive -- at the same time as it puts more money into the economy. People go out, get jobs, take responsibility for their own families. That’s consistent with Christian value, that’s an economic conservative value, and when you hear the president and other liberals speak, they can say that’s what they want as well.

At the federal level, that is seen reflected in the way that we sentence people, in the way we prosecute people, in bills like the Smarter Sentencing Act, which has gotten a lot of traction in the United States Senate, and we’re hoping will have a similar traction in the House of Representatives. That will revisit the mandatory minimum sentencing, and the way we deal with drug offenders in this country. That is already an area of reform that would reflect the success of similar reforms in the states …

[Also at] the state level, it’s a continuation of diversion programs [for] low-level nonviolent crimes, away from prison and a life of being a lifelong criminal, and into a program of accountability, pay it back … Self-sufficiency and being able to be restored in the community. That’s where we’re seeing the greatest successes.

Do you support legalizing marijuana as a way of reforming the criminal justice system?

We do not support the legalization of marijuana or any drug. We have been involved in advocating for reduced penalties, and in some jurisdictions and at some levels, the reduction of the offense …

The decriminalization that just happened in D.C. – reduction to a fine – is that something that you support?

We were not involved in the District of Columbia. But we are involved in Alaska, in Louisiana, in different jurisdictions, as they revisit the way that they punish people for possession of all sorts of drugs …

Being able to sort through people that are acting irresponsibly, from people that have an addiction problem, is really showing huge levels of returns in improving public safety. And for those people that have an addiction problem, it becomes a great source of direction for them toward dealing with the addiction problem, rather than becoming a criminal the rest of their life …

Why should it be a crime to use marijuana?

You know, it’s the choices that the elected leaders make about what gets criminalized and what doesn’t get criminalized …

Our role is to help those elected officials … if there is a violation of the law, to make sure that it’s proportionate to what the lawbreaking was, and that the outcomes are tied to that proportionality …

How you punish a minor who uses alcohol -- is it helping you overcome underage drinking? Because if it isn’t, you’re wasting government money and you’re punishing people unnecessarily. And we take the approach with laws related to marijuana at Justice Fellowship.

Is Justice Fellowship opposed to fully legalizing marijuana?

We have not taken a post in Washington or Colorado when those were on the ballot … We’re more involved in the criminal code.

The prison programming that [Prison Fellowship] does – there was an investigation in Mother Jones about a decade ago that suggested … that effectively, if you’re an inmate in some of these prisons, there is an incentive to embrace the kind of Christianity that your group supports, if you would like to have a chance at parole, or if you would like to have access to resources or programming that otherwise wouldn’t be available.

That’s a good question. Contemporarily – not 10 years ago, but today – we do not believe it’s a good idea to incentivize people to demonstrate a behavior that they wouldn’t be interested in anyway …

Where we’ve found a lot of benefit recently is actually educating people that are lifers, and will never leave prison, so they can actually contribute and live their faith – a decision they’ve made that has no hope of getting them out of prison. To make their time on this earth more useful, and to help others while they spend time in prison, before they go back to community …

We take that question very seriously, because if that [incentive] does exist, that is the basis, really, for the fights that you would have in the court … You can’t have it tied to, say, if you’re in this faith-based program, you’ll do less time. And that wouldn’t benefit the other participants in our program either, if people were there disingenuously. So we don’t advocate for reduced sentences for people that participate in faith programs …

So what spurred that shift in focus over the past several years?

The shift in focus wasn’t related to the allegation in the Mother Jones story, at any level. I wasn’t even aware of that story before. The shift in focus was the success in Angola Prison that Governor Perry spoke of earlier, in Louisiana, where we found that the people that were going to serve there the longest could do the most good.

Actually makes sense – if you’re going to hire someone to work in your company that’s going to be there for 20 or 30 years, you make the strongest investment in those people. In the secular world, it’s the opposite: They would say, “Well, don’t give them a GED … don’t help them with their addictions – they’re never getting out of prison.” They are not valuing that human life …

We looked at our values as a faith-based organization, to say we do value every life. We believe that everyone is created in the image of God. So that person, if they’re going to spend the rest of their life in prison, [who] wants to make a decision to be good … they may not be able to make amends to their victim, but they may be able to contribute positively to our culture and our society. Then we should be the ones that make an investment in them …

Where we get the biggest thank you's is for that. Because nothing in government, nothing in other groups, go into that population … [with] longer sentences, and say, “How do we turn those people from the problem-causers to the problem-solvers inside those walls?”

And why that matters to you and I, the readers of Salon, is the majority – [the other] 95 percent [of] the prisoners are going to come back out, and they’re going to be our neighbors. So what culture you want them to be exposed to when they’re in prison affects what kind of person they’re going to be when they get out of prison. So if we can change the ones who are going to be there the longest, to be the guardians of a good culture in prison, without violence, without crime inside the walls, then we’re going to have less crime and violence outside the walls when they return.

Does Prison Fellowship hire people who are not Christian, or who are gay?

I wouldn’t know how to say that without asking people … I wouldn’t have any idea … We have a very large army of volunteers, growing all the time. So if you volunteer, whether or not you’re a Christian, or whether or not you’re gay or straight, or whatever level of sin or imperfection you have, I think that Justice Fellowship – everyone, myself included as president of it -- has a bunch of imperfections. I work on trying to improve every day. And we don’t ask people when they join the Justice Fellowship advocacy ranks where they are on specific litmus test issues. So that’s -- I hope that’s helpful to you.

What’s your view of what kind of strings it’s appropriate to attach when the federal or state governments provide funding for … prison ministry work?

I think that they shouldn’t be funding faith-based organizations. And they don’t fund any of ours. So that’s a clear answer.

And I think the same applies to anybody else – I’m not trying to judge other organizations, if others are taking it. I just think that it’s a recipe for bad public policy, because what you’ll lose is the -- what you’re trying to do in the meantime. I’m in recovery for alcoholism, and that’s one of the principles of that organization as well, is that every group needs to be autonomous -- depending on no outside support for what they do -- because as soon as you are accepting outside support for what you do, it subjects you to … the perception or the question of … why you’re doing what you’re doing.

So you’re suggestion then is that these groups take no [government] money?

Yeah, I think it would be reasonable for – I think it is widely in practice. But if somebody said we’re going to do these programs in prison and as a matter of policy we’re going to put in a sentence that says, “And none of the faith-based programs will receive any access to this,” then we would support that type of clause …

We don’t think it mixes well together.

Another thing that’s brought up in the Mother Jones article: The programming that your sibling group is doing in the prisons – does that still include therapies that are designed to get people to stop practicing homosexuality?

In prison? For sure, 100 percent. Sexual encounters in prison are not something that’s allowed. And as we’ve seen from the studies that have come back from [the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act], with the guards as well as inmates participating in an active sexuality in the prison, where it’s supposed to be banned, has led to nothing but problems …

I think that Prison Fellowship Ministries in general does an excellent job of trying to live out our Christianity, which includes making sure that we’re paying attention to our own faults before we judge other people in this world. But from a policy perspective, I’m just trying to be clear to you when you ask me questions like that, so you don’t think I’m being cute with you, to say: Do we support policies that limit sexual behavior in prisons? Yes, we do. We’re on record. You know, we don’t think it’s part of a productive prison life.

The programming you’re talking about, though – is it aimed at getting people not to have –

It’s not programming – I was talking about the laws and policies governing prison life. The Prison Rape Elimination Act … [restricting sexual contact] gay or straight.

The programming that’s been described in the past, at [Prison Fellowship] prison ministries, though, includes programming –

I’m unaware of anything that’s going on like that … You’d have to be specific about what you’re talking about. If you’re saying that we have people read the Bible, of course we do, and we promote that. But I’m not aware of any specific programming that you’re describing.

OK. So in terms of what --

You’re describing like a Mother Jones article from 10 years ago … We don’t even have any of the leaders that were running the organization … I don’t know what you’re talking about, is the clearest way I can say it.

What some people would describe as ex-gay therapy – is that –

I don’t know. I mean, I’ve never heard that we do that. [Reached over email, Prison Fellowship senior vice president Sam Dye told Salon, “Prison Fellowship doesn't offer or conduct any therapy designed to help inmates overcome homosexuality … If an inmate self-identifies as homosexual, that would not hinder him or her from being accepted into, participating in or completing any Prison Fellowship program. The prohibition of sexual activity between inmates is a department of corrections rule in every prison and is not based on any moral ethic, but on health reasons (as well as power/control issues)."]

By Josh Eidelson

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