Faith-Tied Program May Trample Inmate Rights

     (CN) - Hinging parole on an atheist inmate's attendance of a faith-based substance-abuse treatment program may violate the First Amendment, the 8th Circuit ruled.
     While serving time at the Western Reception, Diagnostic, and Correctional Center in St. Joseph, Mo., Randall Jackson says he was required to attend the center's faith-based substance-abuse program to be eligible for early release on parole.
     The program "invoked religious tenets by using the serenity prayer and religious meditations," according to the complaint.
     When Jackson objected as an atheist, the center's staff allegedly told him to "act as if" he was praying, and to "use God as an acronym for 'good orderly direction.'"
     Jackson said in his pro se complaint: "It is my assertion that I was being coerced by and through an atmosphere designed and intended to change or alter my thinking and behavior. That it would induce conformity by adding pressure and leverage through the hope and desire of achieving a 'Placement on Parole.'"
     He withdrew from the program, and was subsequently denied early release on parole, in part because he failed to complete the treatment program.
     Though a federal judge dismissed Jackson's subsequent lawsuit, a the 8th Circuit reversed, 2-1, Friday.
     "While inmates have no constitutional right to early parole, Jackson does have the right to be free from unconstitutional burdens when availing himself of existing ways to access the benefit of early parole," Judge Jane Kelly wrote for the majority. "The fact that Jackson did not have a constitutional right to, or statutory guarantee of, early parole does not preclude him from stating a claim of unconstitutional coercion."
     It is unclear whether Jackson could have graduated from the program if he merely sat quietly during the prayers and other religious aspects, the 12-page opinion states.
     Jackson may also sue both the director of the prison, Larry Crawford, and the director of the treatment program, Ms. Salsbury, individually, because they were personally involved in the formation of the policy, the court found.
     Judge Lavenski Smith wrote in dissent that there was no First Amendment violation because Jackson could have qualified for early release in other ways.
     "Having to pursue another avenue for the possibility of early release is not a punishment or significant penalty," Smith wrote (italics in original). "It is drastically different from subjecting an individual to imprisonment as a violation of probation for not attending meetings, or classifying an inmate to a higher security risk category or placing adverse notations in his prisoner record that could affect his parole eligibility. Thus the removal of Jackson's possibility of early release via this one avenue is not 'clearly coercive.'"