I later learned the Crossings unit is known—to the prison population—as the “God Pod.” A residential, 24/7 immersion program, the God Pod is designed to build up the “character” of those prisoners who are willing to stay locked in a special unit and submit to a rigorous daily schedule of classes, workbook assignments, group sessions and other activities as outlined in the voluminous mandatory course material. God Pod participants only interact with one another—not with prisoners outside the program.
I sat, listened and watched the women perform religious songs and interpretive dances, and then walked around the unusually spacious living unit (complete with a couch, microwave and personal decorations, which are not allowed in the general population units). Unlike most general population prison living units, there was a lack of radios and/or televisions.
There were, however, a lot of reading materials, all written by a man named Bill Gothard. The worksheets struck me, on cursory review, as oddly fixated on complete rejection of anything produced by the secular world, as well as unquestioning obedience to authority figures. I asked—and received permission—to take some of the workbook materials home with me.
Those materials eventually became the basis for a lengthy investigation resulting in a January 2005 Santa Fe Reporter cover story, “Beyond the God Pod,” which exposed the close link between CCA and the Chicago-based Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP), a secretive, fundamentalist ministry run by Christian reconstructionist Bill Gothard, and the degree this group had been given influence on and access to women in the God Pod.
Not only was this program being run in a state facility (and thereby with state funds), but women prisoners were being instructed, among other things, to “submit” to male authority unquestioningly and to steer clear of demonic influences all around them, ranging from “dating” to listening to popular music—even Christian music that wasn’t written or authorized by Gothard or the IBLP.
After coming across our story, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) sued the New Mexico Department of Corrections and CCA for funding and/or facilitating an overtly religious program with state taxpayer dollars. That lawsuit earned national attention and drew more media attention to the phenomenon of God Pods.
Unfortunately, after a protracted battle, FFRF eventually withdrew its lawsuit in July 2007, after the presiding judge said he would rule against the right of FFRF’s state taxpayers to sue. The program continues to this day at the Grants women’s prison (as well as several men’s prisons).
Coercive “character” and faith-based units like the one I ran across at the Grants prison are popping up with increasing frequency in states like Oklahoma, Florida and Indiana. New Mexico seems to have started a trend in corrections, much in the same manner as it has with its nation-leading, record-breaking reliance on private prisons and all manner of other privatized services within its detention facilities (including the Wexford debacle, exposed by SFR, related to the often deadly “quality” of privatized health care in state prisons, sfreporter.com: “The Wexford Files”).
A version of “Beyond the God Pod” ended up as a chapter of my book, and that chapter has become one of those that most surprised and outraged readers, including those already well-versed in female imprisonment. To this day, I continue to report on Gothard’s operations, further exposing the workings of this organization, and the degree to which it has infiltrated local, state and federal government offices across the world. (In 2006, I gained entrance to the IBLP’s secular front organization, the Oklahoma City-based Character Training Institute, for an In These Times cover story, “Cult of Character.”) I also continue to follow trends in the collaborations between private detention centers and entities with a particularly strong interest in having access to captive populations.
Still, the issue is just one of the many plaguing American jails and prisons.
Human rights violations of all sorts are endemic in the US prison system. Some are subtle; some are overtly abusive. Unfortunately, much of society is becoming used to the idea that jails and prisons—and the people who work for them—can do just about anything they want: four-point restraints, hooding, pepper spraying, Tasering or rape. And popular culture isn’t doing much to dissuade anyone.