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Faith of our felons

‘Making my own decisions is what got me here.’

by and


NEWPORT — Bobbie Nicholson is 63 and has spent the last 13 of those years in confinement. She’s an inmate at the McPherson Unit of the Arkansas Department of Correction, a women’s prison located just outside Newport. The Grimes Unit, a men’s prison, is next door. Nicholson is a grandmother, she tells a visitor, although she seldom sees her grandchildren or any other members of her family. They’re outside; she’s in. One suspects there might be some division within the family too. The reason Nicholson is here, doing life without parole, is that she was convicted of first-degree murder. Of her husband.

When it’s suggested that she still might be released someday — a governor granting clemency, perhaps — she waves the suggestion away. “I don’t have any hope of getting out. I never think about clemency.” She says this not despairingly, but serenely. A “character coach” in a prison program called Principles and Applications for Life (PAL), Nicholson says, “I’m kind of a problem solver. I’m available when somebody needs somebody to share with. This program fulfills everything I ever wanted to accomplish. I’ve found a fulfilled life.”

Such sentiments are not uncommon among participants in the PAL program, apparently. Stacy Smith, 41, who served 12 years on a drug charge before Gov. Mike Huckabee granted her clemency, now returns to McPherson voluntarily to work in a program she founded and called “From Prison to Purpose.” It’s intended to help former inmates re-enter the outside world, and to help churches minister to them. Smith was at McPherson when the PAL program began here eight years ago. It’s now in most of the ADC units. “This is where God put purpose into my life,” she says.

Carolyn Arnett, who is leading a discussion group today, is 30 and looks younger, smallish and cutish in a white prison uniform that’s too big for her. She’s been imprisoned since she was 22. Like Nicholson, she is serving a sentence of life without parole. She and a companion were convicted of capital-felony murder in the shooting of a man they intended to rob. Also like Nicholson, she says her mind is not filled with dreams of getting out.

“Whether I stay in here or not depends on God,” Arnett says. “My life is not mine anymore. Making my own decisions is what got me here … We serve a very big God. I’m learning to love Him. I was raised in church, but not until I got to prison did I learn what it really means. … If they [inmates] apply the principles they learn here, it will change their life. We’ll always be under authority one way or another.” (The need for obedience, for submitting to legitimate authority, Godly or earthly, is a big part of the PAL teaching.)

Then there was Mary “Lee” Orsini, the most famous female inmate of the Arkansas prison system before she died of a heart attack in August 2003. Orsini was convicted in the infamous McArthur murder case in Little Rock, the subject of books and made-for-TV movies.

A colorful mural is on one wall of the barracks where the PAL classes are held. There’s a ship on a stormy sea, and a lighthouse showing the way to safety. Eighty percent of the mural was painted by Orsini, according to Smith. Department of Correction spokesperson Dina Tyler remembers Orsini well.

“Mary ‘Lee’ Orsini was not the easiest inmate to manage,” Tyler says. “She was difficult. Then she took part in this class [PAL] and she did very well in it. As she progressed, every time I saw her, she was different. After she finished, she was totally different. She became a very pleasant person, where she hadn’t been before.”

PAL is faith-based, but not necessarily Christian-based, according to Tyler. Non-Christians — Muslims and others — have participated. The Department of Correction has several faith-based programs aimed at uplifting inmates. All are voluntary. The Board of Correction authorizes such programs in the hope they’ll help inmates adjust to their situation better, cause fewer problems, become better people, less likely to return to prison after they’ve been released, Tyler says. In the case of PAL, she says that inmates do in fact behave better. There is no solid evidence as yet that they’re less likely to return to prison. The program is highly popular with inmates. There’s always a list of people waiting to get in, according to Tyler.

What does PAL teach? Sessions are likely to begin with prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance. After that, Nicholson says, the inmates learn about being obedient, truthful, hospitable, humble, sincere. “We teach about reaping and sowing, how to cope with thoughts of anger, resentment and hurt. We teach life skills, and how to use them in situations where they’re needed.”

Kenneth Dewitt, a fulltime chaplain with the Department of Correction, started this kind of instruction in Arkansas prisons. He’s still at McPherson. He says the PAL curriculum came out of the Character First! Program developed by an organization called the Character Training Institute in Oklahoma City. CTI says that its character-building programs are used by corporations, police departments, schools, correctional institutions and other groups around the country. (The web site of Harding University at Searcy declares that Harding “was recognized as the first Campus of Character in October, 2002, by the International Association of Character Cities, an association of the Character Training Institute in Oklahoma City, Okla. This unique designation followed the passage of a resolution by the university’s board of trustees, declaring that Harding would do everything possible to promote character on campus and beyond.”)

Although participants in the PAL program at McPherson clearly consider it to be religious in nature, CTI materials generally avoid mention of God or Christianity. Instead, they talk about things like “character qualities,” including “attentiveness, obedience, truthfulness, gratefulness, generosity, orderliness, forgiveness, sincerity, virtue … ” (The last one sounds like it would encompass many of the others.)

This may be because in public schools and other public institutions where Character First! Programs are used, emphasis on religion could lead to legal challenges concerning the mingling of church and state. But journalists investigating the origin of the Character First! Programs have traced them back to a somewhat controversial, somewhat mysterious evangelical minister named Bill Gothard. Considered by some to be a cult-like figure, Gothard heads the Oak Brook, Ill.-based Institute in Basic Life Principles. In the leftist magazine In These Times, Silja J. A. Talvi wrote in January that “the CTI is for all intents and purposes a ‘secular’ front group for Gothard’s IBLP.”

Not that the Arkansas Department of Correction would likely be scared off PAL by vague allegations of connections to a controversial evangelist. The prisons have never been completely divorced from religion. Religious services are held regularly. Chaplains are on the payroll.

The success of PAL has led the Board of Correction to authorize a new program, more openly Christian in nature and likely to get more attention from outsiders. This is the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, a project of Prison Fellowship Ministries, which is led by Charles Colson, who was an aide to President Richard Nixon and served time as a convicted felon in the Watergate affair. Americans United for Separation of Church and State has filed a lawsuit against the use of InnerChange in the Iowa Department of Correction. A lawyer for Americans United says that “InnerChange has taken over an entire unit of a state prison and turned it into an evangelical church.” Not only does the state have no right to sponsor an evangelical program, the lawsuit says, but prison officials are practicing unconstitutional discrimination by granting benefits to InnerChange enrollees that aren’t available to other inmates.

According to Americans United, InnerChange participants in Iowa are being taught that “the Bible ordains men to run households; that homosexuality is a sin; that non-Christian religions are ‘of Satan,’ and that only persons baptized as adults can get into Heaven.”

The Iowa InnerChange program is different from Arkansas’s in an important way. Iowa uses tax dollars for the program. Arkansas will not, according to Tyler.

“The Board of Correction agreed to let the program operate, but said it would have to fund itself,” she said. “This a group that uses their staff, their volunteers, their money. It’s programming we don’t have. Obviously, it’s voluntary. I don’t think we can be closed-minded as an agency and a state to something that might work.”

The program began at the Wrightsville Unit this month.

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