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Study Hints at Efficacy of Florida's Faith-Based Prisons

Contact: Stu Kantor, The Urban Institute, 202-261-5283,


WASHINGTON, Oct. 19 /Standard Newswire/ -- The Florida Department of Corrections has reason to be "cautiously optimistic about the impact" of its faith- and character-based prisons on reducing criminal behavior, an Urban Institute analysis concluded.


Six months after leaving the Lawtey Faith- and Character-Based Institution (FCBI) and its volunteer-led rehabilitation programs, a sample of male inmates had a slightly lower reincarceration rate than a matched group from other Florida prisons. None of the 189 Lawtey inmates were back behind bars a half-year following release, whereas 4 (2.1 percent) of the 189 inmates in the comparison group had returned to prison.


The two groups, however, had nearly the same outcomes a year after release. Tracking 100 women exiting the Hillsborough FCBI and a comparable sample from elsewhere in the state's prison system, researchers found no significant differences in outcomes after 6 and 12 months. The research team from the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center stressed that the number of men and women studied was small, warranting a second wave of research involving more subjects.


"Our findings are strictly preliminary, but they suggest that inmates throughout the Florida prison system could benefit from self-betterment programs that are volunteer run and virtually budget neutral," said Nancy La Vigne, the study's lead author.


The Urban Institute evaluated two of the three FCBIs run by the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC): Lawtey, a men's facility in Raiford, about 40 miles from Jacksonville, and Hillsborough, a women's facility in Riverview, about 23 miles from Tampa. The 2006 evaluation drew on interviews with facility administrators, correctional officers, program staff, and volunteers; focus groups with inmates; and state data on the prison population.


The Changing Prison Environment


In recent years, corrections officials nationally have begun coupling traditional security goals with preparing inmates to lead productive, law-abiding lives after release. Some rehabilitation efforts rely upon faith, spirituality, and character development; most are directed at inmates within a specific unit of a facility.


On Christmas Eve 2003, Florida introduced the first state-run prison dedicated entirely to a faith- and character-based model when it converted Lawtey into an FCBI. The Hillsborough facility opened as an FCBI in April 2004. (A third FCBI, at Wakulla Correctional Institution, opened in March 2006.) During the study Lawtey had 810 male inmates belonging to 31 different faiths, while Hillsborough housed 287 women of 21 faiths.


The FCBIs' many religious and character-focused activities set these facilities apart from standard Florida prisons. The goals are to promote a safer prison environment, rehabilitate inmates, and reduce recidivism by helping prisoners build moral character, develop spiritual resources, and acquire life skills of use behind bars and after release. The programs are strictly voluntary and include explicitly religious activities, such as worship services and scriptural study, personal relationship building through mentoring and small-group activities, and character development programs on parenting and anger management. The programs are entirely funded and run by community volunteers.


Findings and Recommendations


  • Staff, inmates, and volunteers overwhelmingly believe the FCBI model is improving inmate behavior, preparing inmates for successful reentry, and reducing recidivism. Also, they feel the FCBI experience promotes family reunification and employment prospects upon release while improving the prison environment for inmates, volunteers, and staff.


  • The FCBIs are carefully administered to avoid church-state conflicts.


  • Inmates predisposed to successful outcomes are no more or less likely to be housed in FCBIs than other Florida prisons, indicating that the FCBI model could be applied successfully to a broad population of inmates.


  • Volunteers are well briefed on how to safeguard themselves, but the FDOC should examine whether FCBIs' relaxed environments pose unique security vulnerabilities.


  • Correctional staff typically do not receive training specific to an FCBI, and some security-focused employees are neither well prepared nor well suited to work in an FCBI.


  • The core faith- and character-based programs might benefit from the addition of more classes on pre-release planning, vocational and employment skills, and educational assets.


  • Many respondents think that volunteers save the state money and provide more effective, dynamic services than the state can offer.


The study, "Evaluation of Florida's Faith- and Character-Based Institutions," by Nancy La Vigne, Diana Brazzell, and Kevonne Small, is available at The research was funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.


The Urban Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research and educational organization that examines the social, economic, and governance challenges facing the nation.