Rev. Cn. Dr. J. Allison DeFoor is an Episcopal priest on staff in the Diocese of Florida, which has 15 churches weekly inside of prisons. He was formerly a chaplain in four of them. DeFoor is a former public defender, prosecutor, and judge; he was sheriff of Monroe County (Key West).
Certainly no one reading this piece will need to be convinced that the current criminal justice system is unsustainable in pure economic terms. Six percent of the world’s population simply cannot support 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. The system is reminiscent of education and hospitals 30 years ago, before people began to demand performance measures and accountability: inputs and throughputs are measured to the penny; results are an afterthought, if at all.
That the faith community would have a place in the conversation is only a surprise to those who believe (wrongly) that faith has no place in the public square, or offers only balm and not solutions. The truth is that the interest of people of faith is deep, long, and effective.
As Byron Johnson noted in his book More God, Less Crime, the question of whether there is a God cannot be measured by criminology, but the question of whether people who believe in God commit fewer crimes can be asked and answered. The answer is in the affirmative.
Faithful people have been concerning themselves with prisoners’ rights for thousands of years, often when no one else did. In my tradition, Jesus began and ended his ministry talking about prisoners, at a time there were few of them. I believe that this was because he had insight into how we are all ultimately prisoners of something, and he wanted us all to be happy, joyous, and free. Faith communities from almost all traditions have been taking this message behind bars in innovative ways for many centuries, viz. the very term “penitentiary.”
In Florida, beginning under a Republican governor, we have developed an interesting variant upon this idea: the Faith and Character-based Institution. These prisons draw upon the beginning point that prisoners have a constitutional right to reasonable access to their faith traditions. From there, the design was carefully drawn by Nathan Adams, a lawyer with a doctorate in history, to avoid crossing any impermissible state/church lines. The state of Florida runs the facilities, as they would any non-privatized prison in Florida, but the state permits non-profit volunteers to come in and work with prisoners for betterment. And come they do.
Churches and the like—ranging from Catholic and Protestant to Jewish and Muslim, even Wicca—have been allowed time slots. Traditions that are spiritual but not faithful, like AA, NA and yoga, are admitted. Even non-spiritual groups like Toastmasters and business groups doing business education find a place. In some prisons hundreds of volunteers are allowed in on a constant basis.
The results are encouraging. The Florida Legislature’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability found a 15 percent greater success rate, discounting for all other factors. In a system with 100,000 prisoners, turning out almost one-third of them annually, this is a big deal—in lives, public safety, and taxpayer dollars.
So far, after almost 20 years, the method has received little criticism externally, though the system itself has remained remarkably resistant. In most businesses an idea with a 15 percent higher success rate would become the rage. Here it is a slow, constant struggle. It is an idea well worthy of deeper study and deeper implementation in Florida. Other states have seen variants of the idea, including in Angola, Louisiana. Properly structured, these joint efforts, like faith-based hospitals, can avoid running afoul of constitutional restrictions, and perhaps be of use to other states.
At the very least, come to Florida in February and take a look.