Charles “Chuck” Colson’s Prison Ministry Accused of Favoring Christians

Nixon’s henchman launched the largest prison ministry in America. Mansfield Frazier asks whether it violates the First Amendment.

AP Photo

Most people knew Charles “Chuck” Colson, special counsel to Richard Nixon, as the "evil genius" of an evil administration. But in the years after Watergate, Colson, who died April 21, at 80, became perhaps equally well known for founding Prison Fellowship Ministries (PFM)—the largest and most influential prison ministry in existence today.

When the jig was finally up on Nixon and his cronies and the feds were closing in to bring down the curtain on one of the darkest periods in American history, Colson did what many scoundrels before and after him have done: He found God.

More than one political pundit at the time scoffed at Colson’s sudden and miraculous conversion, calling it a ploy designed to win him a shorter sentence. If that was the case, it appeared to work: he was sentenced to serve only seven months, and even then was released early.

That’s not necessarily surprising, because it’s impossible for a judge—or anyone else, for that matter—to look into a human heart and determine who is genuine in their faith, and who is only mushfaking. (A “mushfake” is what prisoners call someone who, immediately upon arriving at an institution, seeks out the chaplain and begins to attend religious services … only to throw their Bible into the nearest ditch upon their release.)

But whether or not Colson truly believed when he first came in, he wasn’t a mushfake. Far from abandoning his newfound religion when he got out, he went on to found PFM, which today has chapters in over 117 countries, according to its website.

The timing for the founding of PFM, in 1975, could not have been better: the war on drugs had recently been declared (and would cause prison populations to skyrocket); evangelical Christianity was spreading throughout the land as televangelists such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robinson began to exhort their congregations to become politically active; and within a little more than a decade, the Corrections Corporation of America would begin mounting a serious campaign to privatize all of the prisons in the country—a business model they, among others, are still actively pursuing.

For Colson to take something like prison ministry (an institution of its own since at least 1791, when Philadelphia’s Quaker-run Walnut Street Jail added cellblocks and called itself a “penitentiary house”) and turn the concept into a high-powered moneymaker was beyond serendipitous, it was good old-fashioned American entrepreneurial ingenuity. The same right-wingers who set the stage for our unprecedented prison population growth in the first place positioned themselves to benefit handsomely by offering up religious solutions to the very problems their policies and laws created.

But PFM has endured its share of controversy: In 2006 an Iowa state judge ruled that a Bible-based prison program violated the First Amendment by using state funds to promote Christianity to inmates. The suit “accused Prison Fellowship Ministries (PFM) of giving preferential treatment to inmates participating in the program. They were given special visitation rights, movie-watching privileges, access to computers, and access to classes needed for early parole.”

And a class-action lawsuit filed in 2010 by prisoners in jail in Pierce County, Wash., alleged that the facility “operates a special unit known as the ‘God Pod,’ where Christian inmates participate in Christian Bible study and receive privileges denied to inmates of other faiths, including substantially more outdoor recreation time, more out-of-cell time, more visits from outside volunteers, and more in-unit entertainment opportunities.”

Other lawsuits have made similar complaints about privileges for the housing units for born-again Christians, where everything is kindler, gentler, and more like home. The problem is, such units are only provided for Christians. When prison officials do not set up similar units for other religions, they are discriminating, and violating the First Amendment to boot.

Religious programs have always been around prison, of course, but the Christian ones in particular got a boost in federal funding once George W. Bush became president, bringing with him to Washington a “solution” to prison problems he’d devised and implemented in Texas: Use the faith-based community to bring about changes in the violence and high rates of recidivism common to incarceration. The state clearly wanted out of the business of rehabilitation and it was an appealing notion to pass off a government function to the private sector, not to mention it was setting the table for privatization. The only problem is, there no evidence such a strategy works—recidivism rates remain stubbornly high in Texas, in spite of all the proselytizing.

But speaking ill of prison religious programming in is like speaking ill of motherhood, apple pie, and the American flag—it simply isn’t done. And for some prisoners it actually works: salvation can be found behind bars. The simple (albeit enforced) act of slowing down and reflecting certainly can change lives, and no doubt evangelical Christian organizations like PFM help that process along, but other religions do too.

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Despite the lawsuits, don’t expect PFM to disappear from the American prison scene anytime soon. State prison officials who claim they can’t find monies to fund educational programming (which actually has proven to reduce recidivism) somehow find funds to throw at faith-based groups—as long as they are Christian.

Reduced recidivism benefits all of society while saving scarce tax dollars, and if treating prisoners more humanely accomplishes that goal—as the proponents of God Pods would have us believe—then it makes good policy sense to treat everyone, no matter their religion, in the same manner. You might say it’s the Christian thing to do.