An Unholy Alliance: Private Prisons and the Christian Right
This is an article by Lawrence T. Jablecki. It appears in the March/April 2013 issue of The Humanist. You can read other articles from this issue and subscribe to the magazine by going to their website.
Imagine, if you will, a meeting of the CEOs, board members, and stockholders of all the for-profit prison corporations in the United States.
The CEOs unanimously agree to sign a contract with Soldiers for Jesus, a consortium of Christian evangelicals founded and led by the Rev. Moses Abraham, to provide services for all of the state and federal inmates in their facilities. The CEOs inform their audience that Soldiers for Jesus has a highly successful track record of leading sinful inmates to the transforming power of God’s grace and that this is the only route to accomplish genuine and permanent change in their thinking and conduct. The very likely fiscal implications are that the occupancy level in their facilities will decline from 90 percent to 50 percent, each company’s stock value will plummet to about half of the current market price, many employees will be given pink slips, and all the top executives will be obliged to accept a 50 percent decrease in annual salary. These draconian consequences are overshadowed by the CEOs’ commitment to reduce recidivism and do their part to terminate the era of mass incarceration. A spontaneous applause erupts, voices call for a vote by acclamation, and that is what they do.
Now, if any reader is tempted to believe that this imaginary event is a realistic possibility, I own 500 majestic acres of beachfront property in Texas located midway between San Antonio and Austin that I can sell to you real cheap.
Moving from fantasy to reality, the truth about for-profit prisons (also known as private prisons or detention centers) and numerous Christian evangelical groups known for their biblical fundamentalism is that they have forged an “unholy alliance.” It is an unsavory and immoral relationship given that none of the folks who operate private prisons give a hoot about saving souls or changing lives on a massive scale. Why? Because it’s totally inconsistent with their ultimate goal of earning money for their company and its investors.
The best illustration of this is the Corrections Corporation of America’s February 2012 letter to forty-eight states offering to purchase their prisons if and only if a state would sign a twenty-year contract with the guarantee that they’d send enough inmates to maintain a 90 percent occupancy rate. The unambiguous but unspoken suggestion is that states should cease any meaningful review of their sentencing policies and abandon efforts to improve the effectiveness of their probation and parole agencies. I am very pleased to mention that Democratic state Senator John Whitmire of Houston, Texas, Chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, has gone on record as having no interest in this offer by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA).
It would be unfair to use a wide brush to paint the owners and stockholders of the CCA and the multinational GEO Group, which provide the lion’s share of outsourced correctional services in North America, Australia, South Africa, and the UK, as evil and immoral villains. In fact, I’m confident that many of these folks believe their facilities are enhancing public safety and saving millions of state and federal tax dollars. If any of them, however, also claim to believe that our criminal justice system can and should be more effective in accomplishing a major reduction in the number of persons we incarcerate in our state and federal prisons, they are unrepentant hypocrites.
As documented by numerous writers, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, which is the direct result of our inequitable war on drugs (which incarcerates legions of mostly minority offenders for nonviolent offenses), excessively long prison sentences, mandatory minimums, three-strikes legislation, and the absence of a national and effective indigent defense system. All of this is totally consistent with the agenda of the purveyors of private prisons and is an egregious blemish on their enterprise.
Of the numerous scholarly works that discuss the origin and nature of the punitive policies of mass incarceration, four of the best are: Michael Tonry’s Thinking About Crime (2004), Bruce Western’s Punishment and Inequality in America (2006), Todd Clear’s Imprisoning Communities (2007), and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (2010). Collectively, these works contain a devastating critique of the politics and policies that have fueled the drive to mass incarceration, and document the devastating consequences in the lives of multitudes of mostly young African American males, their families, and their communities. Finally, the most outrageous statement expressing the naked truth of the private prison industry’s real agenda is found in the CCA’s  Annual Report:
The demand for our facilities could be adversely affected by the relaxations of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.
There is no room for doubt here — this industry is unconditionally against any reform of our penal statutes that could significantly reduce the constant flow of inmates to their facilities. How, then, should we explain its lengthy and successful courtship of a variety of groups flying the flag of evangelical Christianity, preaching forgiveness, love, reconciliation, and redemption? This question isn’t hospitable to easy, non-controversial answers.
From this writer’s perspective, it makes no difference if the terms “religious right” and “Christian right” are synonyms or if they represent some significant doctrinal distinctions. The critically important point is that the vast majority of groups under these rubrics are evangelical Christians whose shared beliefs make them fundamentalists, or biblical literalists, for whom the Christian Bible is the inerrant word of God, Jesus Christ is the mediator who forgives our sins as salvation, and genuine change comes from the undeserving grace of God.
The moral, social, and political views of these groups are grounded in the above theological commitments. These also include a strong consensus on banning or at least applying major restrictions to abortion, abolishing restrictions on government funding of religious charities and schools, allowing officially sanctioned Christian prayer in public schools, and opposing all court decisions that uphold the separation of church and state. This adamant opposition to the establishment clause explains why Christian right groups boldly claim that they should be allowed to use tax dollars to convert prison inmates to their version of Christianity. They have no doubt that God is on their side — meaning they have received a divine command to teach and preach that any Christian theological perspective in conflict with theirs is erroneous and that non-Christian religions worship false gods. This is fertile ground for breeding the kind of intolerance responsible for centuries of incalculable human suffering. (Immense gratitude should be extended to the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State for being the vigilant watchdogs of the activities of all groups that attempt to destroy the wall of separation between church and state.)
Many thousands of state and federal inmates in private prisons are receiving religious instruction from the employees and volunteers associated with a number of organizations, including the Prison Fellowship Ministries founded by Charles Colson in 1976; Corrections Concepts, founded by Bill Robinson in 1985; the Institute [in] Basic Life Principles, founded by Bill Gothard in 1961; and Champions of Life, founded by Bill Glass in 1972. I have no doubt that many inmates have and will receive guidance that will set their lives in a positive direction, and it’s my sincere hope that they won’t become statistics in the recidivism rate.
The most far-reaching issue, however, is that the worldview of evangelical Christians commits them to embrace and practice what John Stuart Mill called “the assumption of infallibility.” In his classic work, On Liberty, Mill cites many examples in Western history when the intolerance of conflicting opinions and the attainment of political power resulted in injustices and atrocities. The silencing of dissent is grounded in the illusion of absolute certainty and a failure to grasp the truth of the facts, in that:
The world to each individual means the part of it with which he comes in contact: his party, his sect, his church, his class of society; the man may be called, by comparison, almost liberal and large-minded to whom it means anything so comprehensive as his own country of his own age. Nor is his faith in this collective authority at all shaken by his being aware that other ages, countries, sects, churches, classes and parties have thought and even now think, the exact reverse. He devolves upon his own world the responsibility of being in the right against the dissentient worlds of other people; and it never troubles him that mere accident has decided which of these numerous worlds is the object of his reliance, and that the same causes which make him a churchman in London would have made him a Buddhist or a Confucian in Peking.
All of the well-meaning and sincere evangelical Christians whose worldview I have identified are easy targets of Mill’s comments, which further expose their potential threat to our free society. This is a very serious accusation but it is substantiated by one of the most urgent concerns of the founders who crafted and ratified the U.S. Constitution. More specifically, they were steadfastly determined to create a system of government in which there would be no fusion of religious and political power, that is to say, there must be no possibility of the emergence of a theocratic state in which religious leaders of one persuasion rule with an iron fist. Mill, likewise, was cognizant of the many historical epochs during which this had occurred and helps to articulate a very uncomfortable truth about all of us. In the introduction to On Liberty he writes:
This disposition of mankind, whether as rulers or as fellow citizens, to impose their own opinions and inclinations as a rule of conduct on others is so energetically supported by some of the best and some of the worst feelings incident to human nature that it is hardly ever kept under restraint by anything but want of power.
I am quite certain that some leaders and many members of the evangelical Christian groups who provide religious indoctrination to inmates in private prisons would gladly participate in the creation of a theocratic state in which they could compel their fellow citizens to become “born again” and legally prosecute dissenters and heretics.
A major decision by the United Methodist Church (UMC) provides something of a counterpoint to what I’ve termed the unholy alliance between private prisons and evangelical Christians. This is in large part due to the fact that the United Methodist Church is decidedly more mainline Protestant than it is evangelical.
In 2011 UMC’s Board of Pensions made two ill-advised investments, purchasing $736,000 in stock of the CCA and $215,500 in GEO Group stock. Shortly thereafter the UMC membership, which hadn’t previously been informed about this possible use of their pension fund, crafted and circulated a petition demanding the immediate divestment of this money. The petition claimed that the investment was incompatible with biblical teaching and inconsistent with their record of opposition to mass incarceration, particularly of racial and ethnic minorities. Bill Mefford, the director of civil and human rights for UMC’s General Board of Church and Society, noted that “the response was quick and intense. United Methodists were outraged because they knew that private prison corporations represent values that are antithetical to the values of compassion and justice that Jesus lived and taught… Profiting from stock in CCA and GEO Group is a betrayal of all that we stand for and believe in as United Methodists and followers of Jesus.” The UMC no longer owns stock in private prisons and has taken steps to ensure that it won’t in the future. On April 28, 2012, during the United Methodist General Conference held in Tampa, Florida, more than 500 people attended a protest rally against private prisons. The rally concluded with an announcement that their Council of Bishops would send letters opposing private prisons to all fifty states and Puerto Rico.
The noble actions of the UMC aside, the cozy alliance of private prisons and evangelical Christians endures, perpetuating tough penal policies that continue the massive flow of mostly racial and ethnic minorities to private, state, and federal prisons. The for-profit criminal detention industry and the Christian right are joined at the hip by a draconian moral and political perspective that impedes the realization of a genuine system of criminal justice that protects the dignity and rights of every person. In the spirit of the UMC membership’s actions, private prisons should be seen as “bad faith” investments and evangelical Christians who help fill their pockets with riches (the thirty pieces of silver given to Judas) should be vigorously chastised by the larger community of Christian and non-Christian religions. Moreover, for-profit prisons should be abolished legislatively.
Five or six years ago, a prison inmate confronted me with a question to which I had no satisfactory answer and to date still have no adequate response. During one of the classes that I teach in the prison program for the University of Houston at Clear Lake, I was expressing my objections to faith-based prison programs, particularly those that are given tax dollars and goods and services to support sectarian indoctrination. One of my students replied, well, Dr. Jablecki, at least they’re providing valuable help to prepare inmates for re-entry into the free world, and those who complete their program and are released, in addition to spiritual mentoring, receive assistance in finding a place to live and work. What have the humanists done to help us? My momentary response was that several thousand inmates have taken my classes and in all of them I have expressed my humanistic conviction that knowledge and willpower can free them from a life of crime. If I didn’t believe that, I told him, I wouldn’t be here. This was not, however, a satisfactory answer to a number of critically important issues.
The increasing presence of evangelical Christians in our prisons should be a clarion call to the American Humanist Association, during an annual meeting, to create a blue-ribbon committee charged with the mission of making recommendations for how the philosophy of humanism, along with the presence and activities of humanist communities, can be introduced and propagated in some of our nation’s prisons.
Lawrence T. Jablecki, PhD is a lecturer in the Masters of Liberal Studies Program at Rice University and a research associate in the Department of Sociology. He continues to teach for the University of Houston at Clear Lake’s prison program. He was the director of the Adult Probation Department in Brazoria County, Texas, for eighteen years.