Faith Finds a Home Behind Prison Walls

November 11, 2006

Author: Alexander Alter

Source: The Miami Herald

RAIFORD - At Lawtey, a medium-security prison where the Bible Belt intersects Florida's prison belt, an anger management workshop looks like this: Ninety-six men in light-blue jumpsuits crowded into an unadorned chapel, singing and clapping as an eight-man choir sings gospel music.

''We thank you, Lord, for our confidence that we don't have to leave here the way we came in,'' said the Rev. Steve McCoy, a round, cheerful man who asks inmates to open their Bibles to Proverbs 14.

It may resemble a church service, but McCoy's class is part of Florida's growing faith-based prison program, and Lawtey is the flagship institution.

Behind several rows of barbed wire fence off a quiet two-lane road, Lawtey houses more than 800 inmates -- men convicted for crimes ranging from cocaine trafficking and grand theft to aggravated assault and second-degree murder. All chose to be part of a controversial experiment, one that tests the boundaries between church and state and entrusts religious volunteers with prisoners' rehabilitation.

Nearly three years after Gov. Jeb Bush inaugurated Lawtey as the nation's first faith-based prison in an elaborate Christmas Eve ceremony, Florida's Department of Corrections has rapidly built up its faith-based venture. Two more prisons have been converted to faith-based institutions, and the state plans to launch another faith-based prison in Central Florida, said Fran Barber, director of classification and programs for Florida's Department of Corrections. Seven prisons around the state now have faith-based dormitories.