LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Arkansas correction officials are dedicating a Bible-based program for female prisoners, but a national group said it's a risky move while a similar system is being challenged in federal court.
Forty-nine women have enrolled in the InnerChange Freedom Initiative at the Wrightsville prison, which officials will dedicate Friday.
Under the program, inmates live in a separate unit and attend classes on subjects including computer skills and anger management. They also participate in religious devotionals.
After being released from prison, participants receive guidance from a mentor and a local religious group for at least six months.
The program, operated by Prison Fellowship Ministries, was dedicated for the Tucker Unit in June and 99 men are participating in the program. Mark Earley, the program's president and chief executive officer, says the women's program has a capacity for 50 prisoners and the men's unit can take 120.
The dedication comes as Prison Fellowship Ministries appeals a federal judge's order to cease its program at the Newton Correctional Facility in Iowa and repay the state $1.53 million. The Ministries also operate programs in Kansas, Minnesota and Texas.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State challenged the Iowa program, saying it violated the First Amendment's freedom of religion clause by using state funds to promote Christianity.
Earley said Arkansas' program could not be challenged in the same way because no taxpayer dollars are going toward the program.
"The issue in the Iowa case was the partial contribution by the state," Earley said. "All of the new programs are totally funded by private funds."
Ayesha Khan, legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said states should wait and see what happens with the appeal before the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals before expanding or entering into the program. The appeals panel's decisions establish case law in Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.
"It's legally risky for them to start walking down this path at this stage," Khan said.
Dina Tyler, a spokesman for the state Department of Correction, said the only state money going toward the program is for housing and feeding the inmates. Tyler said participation in the program is voluntary.
"Your religion is not a factor in participation," Tyler said.
Earley, however, said participation in Bible study is a mandatory part of the program, which he described as "Christ-centered."