Monday, May 19, 2008

Chuck Colson's dubious prison statistics

I am saving up material to discuss with Chuck Colson, but I couldn't wait on this bit. While reading his new book, The Faith, I came across a passage in which he touted the great success of his prison ministry. In a chapter called "Truth," Colson writes:

"The only thing the god of tolerance hates more than Christians making truth-claims is Christians proving them. Beginning with a facility in Houston, Prison Fellowship now runs residential programs, 'spiritual boot camps,' within prisons in locations scattered across the country. This is called the InnerChange Freedom Initiative — or IFI. We have, since the beginning, contended that these demonstrate the truth of the Gospel in transforming lives. University of Pennsylvania researchers reported that IFI graduates had an 8 percent re-incarceration rate versus 20 percent in a comparable control group (and 67 percent nationally). Prison officials were astounded."

Maybe they were astounded by the audacity with which Colson trumps up statistics.

I remembered discussing this on "The Non-Prophets" years ago, and had a vague memory that there was something fishy about these numbers. Like, for instance, people who start the program but then drop out were not counted, and when you factor this in, there is actually a HIGHER recidivism rate (the percent of them who return to prison) than average. It's old news, but I had a hard time calling back the details.

Still, I imagined bringing this point up with Colson, and he would probably say: "Of course I am not responsible for prisoners who do not finish my program. They didn't really get the faith. But look at the wonderful results based on people who did finish!"

I looked up the story on this, and I found out that it's much worse than even I remembered. Here's the story:

Faith-Based Fudging

Actually, not only do they not count people who didn't finish the program in prison... they actually discount many of the people who did go through the entire program. This is pretty astounding, but here it is:

If you don't get a job after you leave prison, you are not counted as a graduate.

Unbelieveable. In order to get these results, their own study was cherry picking a reduced set of people who have already achieved a measure of success — getting a job after leaving prison — and then they claimed credit for it!

Think about it. If you were to simply take a master list of all prisoners who get out of jail, regardless of whether they attended Colson's "boot camp" or not, and then you only counted the ones who managed to get a job, then of course they would have a much lower tendency to go back to jail. If they have a job and money, there is less need for them to commit more crimes.

I'm almost surprised that Colson doesn't simply discount everyone who goes back to jail as a "graduate." Then he could claim that his graduates have a 0% recidivism rate.

I want to give Colson the benefit of the doubt and claim that he simply is not aware of the error in his method. But this study has been out for five years. Furthermore, in the very next paragraph, he verbally assaults reverend Barry Lynn, who sued IFI. Colson's take on this is: "To prove our truth-claims proved an outrage that tolerance could not abide." I looked up Americans United's page on the case. The study I just mentioned was cited as part of it.

There is, of course, not a mention of this. Not a response, not a refutation; he simply goes on repeating statistics that were shown invalid years ago.


  1. Ah yes, I remember this topic vaguely - I remember hearing if from the Non Prophets.

  2. So Colson's book contains a chapter called "Truth" that is actually a pack of lies? Sounds about par for the course for fundamentalist writing.

    I came home Monday to discover my copy waiting for me. I imagine I'll have quite a lot to say when I've finished it.

  3. So do the program's formal rules/guidelines/steps include getting a job once out of jail?

    Ad hoc after the fact is one thing.
    I guess then your argument might be: "In what way, then, is the program helpful? Wouldn't that probably happen anyway?"

    And, I guess, that might be a good argument...

  4. It's the old "stone soup" gambit.

    Claim that Jesus + job = low recidivism, without apparently taking into account whether say, the job alone does nearly as well.

  5. So do the program's formal rules/guidelines/steps include getting a job once out of jail?

    Yes, I believe they do.

    Ad hoc after the fact is one thing.

    It doesn't matter whether it is ad hoc or not. If you cherry-pick your results then you are not honestly representing the impact of the program.

    Again, what I said before: if Colson set one of the rules of the program to be "Do not go back to jail" then he would have a 0% recidivism rate among graduates. He could simply declare that everyone who went back to jail failed to follow the program. That doesn't obligate the program to actually do anything at all, yet they come away with a perfect success rate.

  6. Good point, I see what you mean.

  7. I'm interested in the 'Boot Camp' aspect of his program... What do they do? Water board people into embracing Jebus?!?!

    (Remember that news story about the 'Boot Camp' for troubled teens where the girl was dragged by a van?? It was a Christian 'Boot Camp' by the way. Seriously, I've been to boot camp and nothing like that ever happens...)

  8. I did an Atheist Experience episode on Faith-based Charity (episode #401, 06/19/2005). In the episode I talked about how the whole Faith-based Charity idea is rife with conflict of interest issues.

    Cooking the numbers is just part of a much bigger problem. At a political level, it's a case of selling out the Constitution for votes.


  9. Whether you are a believer in God or not, you have to applaud the work that Chuck Colson and others like him are trying to do. I wonder how many that are reading this can say that they are willing to go into a prison and try to help someone change and get their life back in order? Instead, we want to tear down someone because we think they have juggled some numbers. What does this say about us? (sorry if this post twice....trouble with server)

  10. It says that we are far more impressed by people who do these things when they are honest about their results, and are willing to admit to flaws in the process and thus improve them, rather than lying to pump up their image and get more funding thereby.


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