Florida Opens First Faith-Based Women's Prison

The nation's first faith-based prison for women opened in a Tampa-area detention center Wednesday, nearly five months after a similar program began for men.

About 300 female prisoners will be confined at the Hillsborough Correctional Institution (search), all volunteers who agreed to participate in a program combining vocational classes with worship.

Alia Faraj, a spokeswoman for Gov. Jeb Bush (search), said the new state prison creates "an environment that allows and encourages personal growth, self-reflection and character development."

To avoid legal challenges, no state money will be used for religious instruction. Volunteers will provide religious services and materials. Any religion may be represented at the prison, and no prisoner will be required to participate in religious activities, officials said.

"We need to bring humanity back into these people, to humanize them again, and faith is just one way of doing that," said Diane Conti, a volunteer who will offer inmates a course on Buddhism.

The women's prison is modeled after a program that opened last year at the Lawtey Correctional Institution (search) in north Florida.

Critics are threatening legal action, insisting the state is giving preferential treatment to inmates who participate in religious services.

"It's incredibly irresponsible to open a second facility when so many constitutional and practical questions remain about the first facility," said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (search).

The group has sought records of how the state is funding the programs and may sue.

Unlike the men's prison, where most prisoners were already at the institution when it was converted to a faith-based facility, inmates at the women's program are transferring from another prison. Lynn said the state must have paid for those transfers.