LAWTEY, Fla. -- Marlin Cliburn, inmate No. 575042, recently transferred to Lawtey Correctional Institution, where he is serving 6 1/2 years for aggravated assault, auto theft and fleeing officers.
"My life was headed down the wrong road," said Cliburn, a Baptist. "I've kind of seen the light. I've been screwing up my whole life. I see this as a turning point in my life."
He was one of nearly 800 inmates from 26 faiths who on Wednesday attended the dedication ceremony of what Gov. Jeb Bush called the nation's first faith-based prison -- a facility focused on encouraging the spirituality of inmates of all faiths.
Along with regular prayer sessions, the Lawtey prison will offer religious studies, choir practice, religious counseling and other spiritual activities seven days a week. Participation is voluntary.
"This is not just fluffy policy, this is serious policy," Bush told the crowd. "For the people who are skeptical about this initiative, I am proud that Florida is the home to the first faith-based prison in the United States."
Other prisons and programs have used religious thinking to try to turn inmates away from crime. The Prison Fellowship Ministries runs its Christ-centered InnerChange Freedom Initiative in prisons in Minnesota, Kansas, Iowa and Texas.
Inmates at the Lawtey prison in north Florida were told more than a month ago that it would be completely converted to a faith-based institution.
, prompting 111 to transfer out. But their beds were quickly filled with volunteers from other prisons.
"We've developed a cocoon, a place where they can practice their faith and not have the severe negative pressures and interactions that naturally take place in some of our institutions," said Correction Secretary James Crosby Jr.
Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, called the prison part of "a major constitutional showdown" over government funding for religious programs.
The ACLU is weighing the possibility of filing a lawsuit, waiting for the results of a test case challenging a state voucher program that gives students taxpayer money to attend religious schools.
But officials hope the program will lead to fewer repeat offenders.
The governor said about 38 percent of Florida's released inmates will be back in prison at some point.
"Wouldn't it be nice if we could figure out a way to lower that 38 percent closer to zero percent, for your family and your community?" Bush asked to rousing applause Wednesday.
During the dedication ceremony, many prisoners jumped to their feet and clapped in rhythm as a gospel singer sang "His Eye Is on the Sparrow." Some shouted "Sing it!" and "Amen!"
On the Net:
Lawtey Correctional Institution: http://www.dc.state.fl.us/facilities/reg...