Are Religious Groups In Arkansas Creating a Constitutional Conflict by Providing Services to the Poor?
Are faith-based programs for the poor a problem when there’s no secular alternative?
Inmates in the Little Rock branch of Arkansas Community Correction Center have three options for how to spend their day. They can stay in the prison and do work duty, washing clothes and scrubbing floors. They can get on a work crew outside of prison and do lawn maintenance and highway repair. Or, if they’re lucky, they can get into The Exodus Project, a program that teaches them how to live when they get out according to Christian values.
If they get into Exodus, which only accepts five men each term, they sit in a classroom on the campus of Arkansas Baptist College for four hours a day learning about ethics, recovery, and Jesus. When they get back to prison, they’re given exclusive access to the GED study room, where they can read their workbooks and study the Bible.
Exodus Project participants are often envied by other cellmates, who’ve spent the day working rather than learning, Timothy Duval, a 37-year-old participant, told me.
“When I come back to the unit every day from the Exodus Project, people see that glow, they see that change in me,” he told me, wearing a bright yellow jumpsuit in a meeting room at the Correction Center. “I have guys that are so excited, [asking] ‘what did you learn today?’ And I’ll pull my books out and teach them stuff that I’m learning and they’re excited. They just see the change in me and they’re wanting the change as well.”
Not everyone can get into the Exodus Project. It depends heavily on volunteers, and resources are limited. Those that apply have to go through a rigorous screening and interview process, and have to be making good progress in drug or alcohol treatment programs. But those that do get in have a good shot at staying out of jail once they get out: In the first year that the Project has been tracking the people it’s worked with, none has gone back to prison. (In Arkansas, 42 percent of offenders return to prison within three years of their release.)
The program is effective because the volunteers and staff provide extensive resources for people in and out of prison. Inmates have counselors mentoring them, contacts of potential employers on the outside, and other alumni of the program to help motivate them to stay straight. All in all, the programming of the Exodus Project is far more robust than anything the state, or that most other non-profits, offers in jails.
The Exodus Project is an example of a faith-based organization offering services that the state can’t—or doesn’t—provide. This is a phenomenon that is not uncommon in Arkansas or elsewhere in the South. More often than not, it’s faith-based groups who are stepping up to provide rehab in the prisons, parents in the foster care system, food for the homeless and mentors in the schools. People here are deeply faithful—70 percent of adults in Arkansas say they are “highly religious,” according to the Pew Research Center—and many feel called upon by God to volunteer in their communities and to bring more people to faith.
Now, the state is asking for more help from faith-based groups. Last summer, then-newly elected governor Asa Hutchinson convened what he called the Restore Hope Summit, which brought together hundreds of faith leaders from around the state for two days. He called on the leaders to pitch in more on caring for kids in the state’s foster care system and people re-entering society from prison. The summit gave birth to an organization, Restore Hope, that is coordinating efforts by the government, faith-based non-profits, and others to address some of the state’s biggest problems.
“Rather than saying they’re on one side of the fence and the government is on the other side of the fence, we want to partner more with them to make sure that they’re getting the support from the state that they need,” Hutchinson told me, in a phone call, about faith-based groups. “But also that the state is not an obstacle to them carrying out their mission.”
But in states like Arkansas, where taxes are low and the government doesn’t have the the motivation or support to run very much programming for the poor, it’s the faith-based groups who are providing essential services that might otherwise fall by the wayside. People in need of help are left with a choice: They can get help from faith-based organizations, or they can get no help at all.