Held captive by a determination to keep religion confined to churches and homes, the Freedom from Religion Foundation is demanding the Wisconsin Department of Corrections sever ties with an educational ministry that offers inmates a degree in Biblical studies.
Modeled after the 22-year-old seminary housed at Angola Prison in Louisiana, the Wisconsin Inmate Education Association (WIEA) and Trinity International University (TIU) formed a partnership to create Operation Transformation, an educational program offering a Bachelor of Science in Biblical studies to inmates serving life or long-term sentences. After completing the four-year program, the inmates are reassigned to other prisons as “field ministers.”
The Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) calls Operation Transformation a “grave” violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and claims in a letter sent to state officials that inmates would be better served by a non-religious education.
Representatives for the WIEA and TIU would not comment on the FFRF letter because they were not aware of its existence until I asked them about it, but they said they are looking into the matter. A representative from the Wisconsin Department of Corrections did not respond to questions by deadline.
The letter demands an immediate suspension of the prison’s association with the WIEA and the university and asks Wisconsin Department of Corrections Secretary Jon Litscher to respond in writing with a detailed plan to ensure the department meets its constitutional obligations.
Colin McNamara, an FFRF attorney, cited laws prohibiting state actors from requiring conformance or participation in religious activities but did not indicate how Operation Transformation violates any of those statutes—other than by its mere existence.
Fourteen states have active or developing seminaries within their prison systems, according to the Global Prison Seminaries Foundation, a ministry started by Burl Cain, the former Angola Prison warden who established a seminary program there. Cain’s work in encouraging Christian ministry at Angola is credited with dramatically reducing violence in a prison once known as America’s bloodiest. Angola’s turnaround prompted other states to adopt similar initiatives.
Wisconsin is one of the newest adoptees. Its first class of 25 seminary students is five weeks into the four-year degree program. Inmates meet for class six hours a day, five days a week.
The FFRF claims the seminary program amounts to an unconstitutional motivational carrot to coerce participation in a religious activity.
“It is illegal for correctional institutions to condition any benefit to inmates on their attendance at religious programs,” McNamara warned, without giving context for the allegation or noting any specific conditions for joining the Waupun Correctional Institute program.
But, of the 25 students enrolled in the first class, 18 relocated from medium- or minimum-security state prisons to the maximum-security Waupun Correctional Institute. They will live among the general population for four years before being transferred to other maximum-security prisons as men of peace in violent and hopeless environments.
“For these inmates, moving into a maximum-security prison has been a significant sacrifice,” said Robin Knoll, the executive director of WIEA.
— by Bonnie Pritchett