Crime & Courts

Okla. town plans Christian prison

Wakita, Okla., had been best known as the town where the movie "Twister" was filmed 15 years ago.

Now, the town just over the Kansas state line is drawing attention for its efforts to open the nation's first Christian prison.

The Oklahoma Department of Corrections isn't sure it wants to send prisoners there, but that's not deterring the residents of Wakita or the Texas-based developer from moving forward with "Habitation Place."

The 600-bed facility is planned for 160 acres in Wakita, a town of about 400 people, about 90 miles southwest of Wichita. It will employ only Christians and offer Christian programs, developers say.

City leaders say it will boost a local economy in need of jobs for both Wakita and surrounding towns.

"North-central Oklahoma is getting ready to dry up and blow away," said Mayor Kelly George. "The prison will employ 135 people, and Wakita is so small they won't all be living here."

Critics say the prison, which will be run with public funds, violates the constitutional doctrine of separation of church and state.

"I'm not saying we won't be sued, but we can win it," said Bill Robinson, head of the not-for-profit Corrections Concepts Inc., of Dallas, which will manage the prison for the city.

Robinson said Habitation Place will operate differently from a program in Newton, Iowa, ruled unconstitutional by federal courts.

The all-Christian employee requirement, Robinson claims, falls under a federal exception for religious entities, and inmates will not be accepted based on their spiritual practices.

"The worship practices will be within the discretion of the inmate," Robinson said. "There will be Christian worship but they will not be required to participate, and all worship practices will be accommodated."

Eligible inmates will be men who are 12 to 30 months from completing their sentences, or who are expected to be paroled, and who volunteer for the minimum-security prison. They will dress in civilian clothes, do their own laundry, work and buy food in the cafeteria.

"We want to make this as much as we can like the community he will be returning to," Robinson said. "People who get out of prison these days get $50 and a bus ticket. He has never made a decision on his own in 10 years of being in prison, and now we expect him to suddenly be totally responsible? No wonder he fails."

Robinson is a former convict who has served time for forgery in prisons including Angola, La., and Terre Haute, Ind., from 1962 to 1971.

"When I got out I went to Dillard's department store to buy underwear," Robinson recalled. "Here I was a 37-year-old man and I ended up openly weeping because I couldn't decide what kind of underwear to buy."

Robinson said the Christian prison can run for $42.80 per inmate per day, less than the $60 required at some state prisons.

The state of Oklahoma isn't as convinced.

A spokesman with that state's Department of Corrections says the state doesn't have the funds to enter into a contract with other prison facilities.

The Kansas Department of Corrections said it has not been contacted by Robinson's group.

Robinson and Wakita leaders, meanwhile, are lobbying legislators to provide funds for the Department of Corrections to send inmates to their prison.

"We do have some barriers with the DOC and the legislator," said George, the mayor. "But we're meeting them."