West Virginia removes 12-step recovery programs for inmate release. What does it mean?

Can 12-step programs be required for release from prison?

West Virginia is the latest state to end a rule requiring that inmates eligible for parole must complete a religious-based 12-step substance abuse disorder recovery program before being released.

The move comes after Andrew Miller, a formerly incarcerated man and atheist in West Virginia, repeatedly refused to participate in the religious program at several state jails. He called the requirement “religious coercion,” according to court records. Prison officials rejected his complaints five times before two groups – American Atheists and Mountain State Justice – sued the leadership at the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation on Miller’s behalf.

Mountain State Justice is a legal advocacy group that provides services to low-income West Virginians. The American Atheists group defends the civil liberties of people who identify as atheists across the nation. Atheists do not believe in the existence of a God or gods, according to Merriam-Webster.

After a months-long legal battle, U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Goodwin in July denied West Virginia’s motion to dismiss the case and required state prison officials to remove the state’s religious programming from Miller’s parole eligibility requirements. 

“Although Mr. Miller has no entitlement to parole, the record strongly suggests that he would already have been released, but for maintaining his objections to an unconstitutional policy,” Goodwin said. He also said there was an “undeniably religious nature of the program.”

Miller was released from Saint Mary’s Correctional Center and Jail in October after completing the rest of the division’s requirements.

The West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation ended its requirement for inmates to attend religious 12-step meetings. And it they dissolved the religious components from its federally-funded treatment program’s handbook.

Attorneys for American Atheists are hopeful that the West Virginia decision will have national implications on the use of religious 12-step programs in prison systems across the country, Blackwell said.

“This is, of course, a tremendous victory for Andrew, who is finally free, but also a complete vindication of his and other nonreligious Americans’ rights under the law,” he said. “Rather than cave to West Virginia’s unconstitutional religious coercion, he took a principled stand and fought to defend his First Amendment rights.”

The case illuminates other current and past state challenges to religious 12-step recovery programs in state jails and federal prisons, including a bill that could ban the programs from New York.

What happened in West Virginia?

Before his release, Miller was incarcerated at Saint Mary’s Correctional Center and Jail in Pleasants County, West Virginia. Miller was serving a one to 10-year sentence for breaking and entering, according to his lawsuit.

While at numerous jails within the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation system, Miller filed five grievances about the Christian religious content of the Residential Substance Abuse Treatment’s 12-step program. Officials denied him parole three times because he did not complete the program.

The groups alleged in the lawsuit that Miller’s refusal to complete the religious program was “a significant contributing factor in the West Virginia Parole Board Panel’s decision to deny him parole on three occasions.”

The corrections and rehabilitation system “violated his constitutional rights as well as rights guaranteed by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act,” American Atheists wrote in a news release.

In the lawsuit, Miller claimed that the handbook given to inmates to complete the required Residential Substance Abuse Treatment contained inserts of the “Lord’s Prayer, Twelve Promises, Twelve Traditions, the Serenity Prayer, and the Twelve Steps accompanied on the same page by another copy of the Serenity Prayer.”

The program also required people to attend meetings where they had to recite Christian prayers and other religious content, the records show.

In a response to the complaint filed on April 26, leadership officials from the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation argued the program was not religious and said he was offered “A Humanist Alternative to AA’s Twelve Steps.” They detailed their responses to Miller’s complaints.

“On July 22, 2021, Defendant Medina Prue, RSAT Program Manager, wrote a letter to (Miller) acknowledging that (he) was an atheist and assuring (him) that the RSAT program was “not in place to force religion on anyone,” the court records read.

“One of the first steps of Narcotics Anonymous is concerned with belief in a power higher than yourself. This acknowledgment that your addiction is more powerful than you and therefore something outside yourself must be capable of contributing to your recovery. Over time you will develop your own unique concept of higher power whether it be Nature (sic), evil spirits, existential freedom, laws of science, wizards, water, or humanity as a whole,” the records continue.

What is a 12-step program?

The original 12-step program was developed by Alcoholics Anonymous in 1939, according to Recovery Centers of America. It was designed to help people experiencing alcoholism on their path to sobriety.

“The 12 Steps outline a path to spiritual progress through a series of actions designed to elicit what The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous refers to as a “psychic change” – a complete mental, emotional, and spiritual shift in perception,” the Recovery Centers of America’s website reads. Steps in the program include “admit(ing) to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs” and “ma(king) a list of persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.”

Alternative secular addiction recovery programs to Alcoholics Anonymous offered by some prison programs include SMART Recovery and LifeRing.

USA TODAY reports on state and federal investigations into Georgia's Fulton County Jail.

What are the national implications?

Even though the Department of Justice’s regulations prohibit state prison systems from using financial assistance for religious activities and “from discriminating in the delivery of services on the basis of religion,” according to its website, there is little oversight or enforcement, Blackwell said.

Prisons can include twelve-step recovery programs in the services they provide, but there are restrictions in how they structure their programs and activities, according to a DOJ FAQ sheet.

American Atheists have challenged DOJ officials to investigate violations, Blackwell said, but that the response from them shows there aren’t many “mechanisms for enforcement and their hands are tied.” The DOJ did not respond to an inquiry from USA TODAY.

As a result, his group is looking into similar cases to “take a nationwide look at this and see where else the issue is,” he said.

Secular Strategies, another advocacy group for the separation of church and state, is pressuring other states like New York and Minnesota to follow suit with West Virginia.

New York Governor Kathy Hochul is facing pressure from advocates who want her to sign AB A5074, a bill that would “require written notice to a defendant of his or her right to complete court-ordered alcohol or substance use treatment in a nonreligious treatment program.”

Sarah Levin from Secular Strategies, a group that advocates for separation of church and state, is advocating in New York and for another related bill in Minnesota.

“We really want to shift the burden from the defendant, whose expected to know their rights and advocate for themselves, in a really imbalanced power dynamic,” Levin said.

Handcuffs are attached to a security bar at the Oklahoma County jail.

Oklahoma County Jail

Contact Kayla Jimenez at kjimenez@usatoday.com. Follow her on X, formerly Twitter, at @kaylajjimenez.

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