LAWTEY, Fla. – Gov. Jeb Bush dedicated what he called the nation's first faith-based prison Wednesday, telling its nearly 800 inmates that religion can help keep them from landing in jail again.
In addition to regular prayer sessions, the Lawtey Correctional Institution (search) will offer religious studies, choir practice, religious counseling and other spiritual activities seven days a week. Participation is voluntary and inmates are free to transfer out.
Bush lauded the inmates from 26 faiths for committing themselves "to a higher authority."
"This is not just fluffy policy, this is serious policy," he told the crowd. "For the people who are skeptical about this initiative, I am proud that Florida is the home to the first faith-based prison in the United States."
Bush said it was the first of its kind, meaning a prison focused on encouraging the spirituality of inmates of all faiths.
Other prisons have used religious thinking to try to turn inmates away from crime. From 1829 to 1913, for instance, the Eastern State Penitentiary (search) in Philadelphia used a Quaker-inspired system in which prisoners were isolated from each other and made to perform labor in hopes of encouraging spiritual reflection and change.
Inmates at the Lawtey prison in north Florida were told more than a month ago that it would be converted to a faith-based institution, prompting 111 to transfer out. But their beds were quickly filled with volunteers from other prisons.
"We've developed a cocoon, a place where they can practice their faith and not have the severe negative pressures and interactions that naturally take place in some of our institutions," said Correction Secretary James Crosby Jr. (search)
Officials hope the program will lead to fewer repeat offenders.
The governor said about 38 percent of Florida's released inmates will be back in prison at some point.
"Wouldn't it be nice if we could figure out a way to lower that 38 percent closer to zero percent, for your family and your community?" Bush asked to rousing applause.
Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida (search), called the prison part of "a major constitutional showdown" over government funding for religious programs.
He said before filing suit, the ACLU is waiting for the results of a test case challenging a state voucher program that gives students taxpayer money to attend religious schools.
Marlin Cliburn, a Baptist (search), transferred to Lawtey from Manatee County, where he was serving 6 years for aggravated assault and fleeing officers.
"My life was headed down the wrong road," he said. "I've kind of seen the light. I've been screwing up my whole life. I see this as a turning point in my life."
During the dedication ceremony, many prisoners jumped to their feet and clapped in rhythm as a gospel singer sang "His Eye Is on the Sparrow." Some shouted "Sing it!" and "Amen!"
Later, Bush told the inmates: "I can't think of a better place to reflect on the awesome love of our lord Jesus than to be here at Lawtey Correctional. God bless you."