EDITOR'S NOTE: The Ledger and news agencies in Florida and the nation have featured stories about faith-based prisons, a trend in which inmates are placed in specialized units that encourage the practice of their religious beliefs. Advocates have said the effort helps with prisoners' behavior while incarcerated and in their assimilation back into society when they get out. Former journalist Tom Siebert served part of a sentence for drug possession and robbery in a faith-based Florida prison. In a first-person account, he describes problems with the program. The following is his story. The Ledger asked for and received a response by the Florida Department of Corrections, and it accompanies Siebert's piece.
On Nov. 23, 2005, then-Gov. Jeb Bush visited Wakulla Correctional Institution near Tallahassee to dedicate the entire 1,600-inmate prison to the development of faith and character.
One of the guest speakers that day was corrections chief James Crosby, who would later be sent to prison himself for accepting more than $130,000 in kickbacks. Many of Crosby's employees would also be indicted, demoted or fired.
As an exemplary participant in the prison's faith-based dormitory program, I was selected to be interviewed by the Capitol press corps. As a former newspaper reporter, I longed to expose the corruption of the faith-based program by many inmates, as well as the abuses of some corrections officers.
Afraid to speak out
But my desire to get out of prison alive and on time overruled my inner crusading journalist. So rather than an exposé, I gave the reporters a testimony.
I testified how God had sent a parade of chaplains, faith-based volunteers and fellow Christian inmates into my life to demonstrate his infinite love and redeeming grace. I talked about the many edifying religious courses I had taken in the program, such as "Alpha," "Experiencing God" and "40 Days of Purpose." I recounted praying and studying the Bible with other inmates who had undergone the same existential transformation as I had.
These men were former addicts, alcoholics, burglars, robbers, drug dealers and child molesters who had found mercy and meaning in their lives by receiving the Lord Jesus Christ as their resurrected Savior.
I concluded by telling the press how the chaplains and church volunteers had generously written letters on my behalf to help me re-establish my writing career as a Christian journalist.
Bits and pieces of my testimony were disseminated in newspapers, including The Ledger, and on radio and television newscasts throughout the country.
The ugly reality
But ever since that cold, late-fall day, it has weighed heavily on my conscience that I had given an incomplete report of life in a faith-based prison. So now that I am safe at home, I am morally compelled to tell - as Paul Harvey puts it - the rest of the story:
Upon enrolling in the faith-based program at Wakulla, inmates were asked to sign a "covenant of conduct." We agreed we would not use profanity or racial slurs. We promised not to possess drugs, pornography or other sexually explicit materials. And we stated we would respect those who were praying, studying or sleeping.
Only a few of us, however, would be men of our word and obey the rules to which we had agreed.
In the faith-based dormitory, there were several long folding tables upon which men were supposed do their "homework," or study their Bibles or other spiritual books. But these tables were used primarily for cards, games and gambling.
VCR and DVD players were set up in the dorm library, and we were instructed to watch only religious films on them. That did not stop inmates from smuggling in Hollywood movies, which were enjoyed by most of the 64 men in the dorm in full view of the officers. There also were several personal computers in the library, which were used mostly for playing video poker.
We were not permitted to watch any faith-based programs in the faith-based program. No T.D. Jakes or Franklin Graham. The TV schedule was mainly sitcoms, soap operas and blood-spattered crime dramas. "Desperate Housewives" was a favorite. And you would not think men in prison would be allowed to watch a show called "Prison Break," but you would be wrong.
The soundtrack of the faith-based program was not, as one might expect, praise music; it was gangster rap. Many inmates would play their personal radios throughout the day and night, singing along with rappers who celebrated crime, killing and fornication. Women were commonly referred to as bitches or "hoes." And the most popular phrase in the dorm was the ugly 12-letter conjugation of the f-word that begins with an "m."
To paraphrase philosopher Henry David Thoreau, the mass of men in prison live loud lives of desperation. Wakulla was no exception. The noise levels in the dorm were often deafening, despite our previous pledge to keep the peace.
Theft and violence
There were fights and frequent threats of violence. Food was stolen from the dining hall, and men hid their pornography and other contraband in lockers reserved for religious materials. It was not unusual to find a razor blade concealed in a Bible.
Most of the officers turned a blind eye, a deaf ear and a dead conscience to this decidedly unfaithful behavior. Inmates housed in other dormitories called ours the "fake-based" dorm, and this was not a misnomer.
New chaplains were periodically hired to oversee the program, and each tried unsuccessfully to impose some semblance of discipline among the "participants." But the so-called convict code was so deeply entrenched in many of these men that anyone even seen speaking with a chaplain was labeled a "snitch."
I served the final year of my sentence at the adjacent Wakulla Work Camp, where there are also outstanding chapel services and religious courses taught by devoted volunteers. But the majority of the work-camp inmates did not even attend church or classes for most of the time I was there.
In sum, the faith-based program at Wakulla is not reaching its full potential to help change lives, families and communities. Reforms are obviously needed.
For starters, inmates who enroll in a faith- and character-building program should be required to participate and obey the rules. In addition, they should be taught how to do unto others as they would have others do unto them (Matthew 7:12).
Blind eye to abuse
Most importantly, they should be treated humanely. Prison inmates at Wakulla and throughout Florida are treated worse than the terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay.
Officers routinely shout and swear at them. They sleep on skinny mattresses on hard steel bunks with no safety steps or railings. They work outdoors for long hours with little or no protection from the cold, rain, sun and ubiquitous mosquitoes. And they are often forced to quickly consume their meals as if they were in a food-eating contest. This results in mass indigestion and massive food throwaways at taxpayers' expense.
Being sent to Wakulla, or any prison in Florida, is a potential death sentence for nonsmokers. Former Gov. Bush signed legislation in 1999 that banned smoking in prison dormitories, but inmates who smoke do not observe this law.
Thousands of nonsmoking inmates have filed grievances - some courageous souls have even filed lawsuits - complaining about deadly secondhand smoke. And thousands more would no doubt complain, but inmates who file grievances or legal actions are often hauled off to confinement, their sentences thereby extended.
Fear and intimidation
As some officers are fond of warning would-be whistleblowers: "I will not lie to you, but I will lie on you."
In 1997, Florida received $13 billion in settlements from the tobacco companies to recover the cost of treating Medicaid patients for smoking-related diseases and disorders. But the state still sells tobacco products to prison inmates and then forces taxpayers to pay for their health care and settle the lawsuits filed by nonsmoking inmates who are constantly exposed to deadly secondhand smoke.
Throughout my sentence, I was treated for breathing difficulties caused by massive inhalation of others' cigarette smoke. Now that I live and work in a smoke-free environment, I no longer take medication, but I am concerned about developing lung cancer due to the voluminous amounts of carcinogens that I inhaled in prison.
Every nonsmoking inmate who has served time in Florida's toxic prisons should receive free screening and, if necessary, treatment for lung cancer, heart disease and respiratory disorders.
Banning the sale of tobacco in Florida prisons - as county jails, federal prisons and many state prison systems have already done - would save thousands of lives, millions of dollars in health-care costs and potentially billions in liability to the taxpayers.
Corrections officers perform critically important jobs in our society, and they should receive commensurate respect and remuneration. Their treatment of an inmate can determine whether he returns to society as a contributing citizen, or as an angry, unrepentant criminal. Hurt people hurt people.
Mistreating men in prison, moreover, does not inculcate faith and character in them; it makes them feel more unworthy of a better life, free from drugs, crime and incarceration. I saw officers at Wakulla commit random acts of kindness, while others committed rampant acts of cruelty. Abusive or apathetic officers, such as those who sleep on the job, must find less-important work elsewhere.
Allowing inmates to violate prison rules and state laws with impunity is another form of mistreating them, in the same way that parents who have a laissez faire approach to child rearing can be charged with neglect and have their kids taken away from them.
Most men in prison desperately need correction - but not abuse - from the Department of Corrections.
Jesus said, "Inasmuch as you did it to the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me" (Matthew 25:40). So we are all going to be judged by the manner in which we allow these least-regarded members of society to be treated.