Life was different in Unit E at the state prison outside Newton, Iowa.
The toilets and sinks — white porcelain ones, like at home — were in a separate bathroom with partitions for privacy. In many Iowa prisons, metal toilet-and-sink combinations squat beside the bunks, to be used without privacy, a few feet from cellmates.
The cells in Unit E had real wooden doors and doorknobs, with locks. More books and computers were available, and inmates were kept busy with classes, chores, music practice and discussions. There were occasional movies and events with live bands and real-world food, like pizza or sandwiches from Subway. Best of all, there were opportunities to see loved ones in an environment quieter and more intimate than the typical visiting rooms.
But the only way an inmate could qualify for this kinder mutation of prison life was to enter an intensely religious rehabilitation program and satisfy the evangelical Christians running it that he was making acceptable spiritual progress. The program — which grew from a project started in 1997 at a Texas prison with the support of George W. Bush, who was governor at the time — says on its Web site that it seeks “to ‘cure’ prisoners by identifying sin as the root of their problems” and showing inmates “how God can heal them permanently, if they turn from their sinful past.”
One Roman Catholic inmate, Michael A. Bauer, left the program after a year, mostly because he felt the program staff and volunteers were hostile toward his faith.
“My No. 1 reason for leaving the program was that I personally felt spiritually crushed,” he testified at a court hearing last year. “I just didn’t feel good about where I was and what was going on.”
For Robert W. Pratt, chief judge of the federal courts in the Southern District of Iowa, this all added up to an unconstitutional use of taxpayer money for religious indoctrination, as he ruled in June in a lawsuit challenging the arrangement.
The Iowa prison program is not unique. Since 2000, courts have cited more than a dozen programs for having unconstitutionally used taxpayer money to pay for religious activities or evangelism aimed at prisoners, recovering addicts, job seekers, teenagers and children.