Freethought Today · October 2017

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

FFRF helps relieve ‘Aimless’ prisoners

FFRF has ensured that religious tests are no longer part of the Virginia correctional system.

FFRF received multiple reports, from more than one correctional institution, that Virginia's nonreligious inmates were being penalized on their COMPAS Assessments for indicating that they do not participate in organized religion. COMPAS Assessments are given during inmates' annual review processes in order to evaluate areas that need improvement or attention prior to inmates' release. In the "Goals" category, inmates had been designated as "Aimless," based on selecting "Mostly Disagree" to the two following statements: "I plan to attend religious activities regularly when I am released," and "I have found a religion or spiritual path that I truly believe in."

Being designated as "Aimless" often led to additional burdensome programs being added to an inmate. For an inmate who conscientiously elected not to participate in organized religion and did not consider himself or herself to be "spiritual," the choice presented was unworkable.

To compound the problem, some inmates designated as "Aimless," were being assigned by prison officials to the problematic Matrix program. Matrix is designed to provide "intensive outpatient treatment for people with stimulant use disorders," yet these inmates were not incarcerated for drug- or alcohol-related offenses. Instead of using Matrix as an addiction recovery tool, prison administrators appear to have been using it to promote religion to "Aimless" inmates.

In practice, the Matrix program was being led by instructors who focused the program on the 12-step system of recovery championed by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), which is inherently religious. While the worksheets claim that "None of the 12-step programs are religious" and that "Each person decides for himself or herself what the term 'higher power' means," federal courts have consistently disagreed, ruling that the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step model is inherently religious.

FFRF's concerns about the COMPAS Assessment and the Matrix program have been addressed.

"The Virginia Department of Corrections has decided to remove [the problematic] questions from the [COMPAS] questionnaire," Virginia Senior Assistant Attorney General and Chief of the Correctional Litigation Section Diane M. Abato recently confirmed to FFRF. "The [Matrix] manuals will have any references to 12-step programs removed, and staff will continue to be trained not to refer to 12-step programs."

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