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    Senate ready to vote on faith-based prison plan

    Today the Senate votes on a faith-based program for prisons, earmarking $5-million for projects.

    By DIANE RADO

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 22, 2001


    TALLAHASSEE -- Once a drug dealer who spent time in federal prison, the Rev. Perry Davis now helps Florida prisoners begin new lives, just as he did some 15 years ago.

    "The Lord, I feel, is what turned me around," said Davis, a Southern Baptist minister who runs the state's first "faith-based" residential program for state prisoners at Tomoka Correctional Institution in Daytona Beach.

    Now, it appears that Tomoka will be the springboard for Florida's move into a world where the lines between religion and government will become increasingly blurred.

    The state Senate is poised to approve legislation today that would dramatically increase the number of faith-based programs in Florida prisons. A top priority of powerful state Senate President John McKay, the legislation would use $5-million in state dollars in 2001-02 for projects including:

    Six new "faith-based" dormitories within existing prisons by June 2002. Inmates living in the dorms will participate in programs that "emphasize the importance of personal responsibility, meaningful work, education, substance-abuse treatment and peer support," according to the legislation. Participation by inmates will be voluntary, and the program would not attempt to convert the inmate to any particular faith. Priority will be given to inmates who are three years away from their release date, and who show a need for substance abuse treatment.

    Four hundred beds in the community that would serve as transition housing for inmates needing substance abuse treatment after their release. Faith-based groups would provide the housing.

    Chaplains at at least 10 work release centers who would help inmates transition to life outside prison.

    The legislation specifies that the Department of Corrections will ensure that state funds "are not expended for the sole purpose of furthering religious indoctrination, but rather that state funds are expended for purposes of furthering the secular goals of criminal rehabilitation, the successful reintegration of offenders into the community, and the reduction of recidivism."

    However, civil libertarians view the expansion of faith-based programs -- being pushed on the national level by President Bush -- as troubling.

    Larry Spalding, of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he believes aspects of the Senate legislation to be unconstitutional, but he's not likely to stop it in light of McKay's strong push.

    "The train is coming downhill, and me standing up against it isn't going to slow it down," Spalding said.

    McKay is a former Democrat who earned his college degree in social welfare. His top priorities include helping Florida's neediest citizens, and he has been concerned about helping inmates with substance abuse problems so they don't return to prison.

    McKay's staff said he became interested in a faith-based approach after speaking with Henree Martin, a real estate broker and chairman of the Tallahassee area chamber of commerce who has done volunteer work with faith-based organizations in Florida prisons for some 20 years.

    "John McKay understands that government can't solve all problems in society," Martin said.

    At the state's pilot faith-based program at Tomoka Correctional Institution, the Rev. Perry Davis works for a Christian ministry that serves 128 inmates a year. The program includes Scripture readings, seminars on dealing with anger and stress, Bible studies and mentors from the community who work with inmates.

    Inmates from all religions participate, and the program is voluntary, Davis said. The state doesn't pay him, but does provide space for the program at the prison.

    Legislation filed in the state House envisions even broader uses of faith-based groups to provide state services.

    Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother, would have to review details of the Senate bill focusing on faith-based programs in prisons, spokeswoman Liz Hirst said.

    "But in the past, the governor has said he encourages faith-based organizations to be an active participant in state government," Hirst said.

    * * *

    Florida Legislature Session 2001

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