God Behind Bars

Faith-based ministries are on the rise in US prisons. They help countless people, but also raise questions of bias, coercion, and separation of church and state.

There’s a reason the word “penitentiary” contains the word “penitent.”

“The first penitentiaries in Pennsylvania and New York were created by Quakers and Methodist reformers,” says Tanya Erzen, a professor at the University of Puget Sound. “The idea was for a person to become penitent. In the case of the Quakers, the purpose was to isolate them—they’re really the architects of solitary confinement — so that that person could pray in solitude and redevelop their relationship with God.”

But while religion and the penal system have historically mingled, the modern prison ministry movement has grown exponentially in recent decades. Its rise brings important questions about separation of church and state, coercion, bias toward one faith and not others (the ministries are overwhelming run by evangelical Christians), and what constitutes effective rehabilitation practices.

The prison ministry movement took off in the 1970s when Watergate felon-turned-proselytizer Chuck Colson founded Prison Fellowship, and it’s been a growth industry ever since. Erzen has been studying this rise in faith-based prison interventions in America. Her research forms the basis of her Humanities Washington Speakers Bureau talk “God Behind Bars,” as well as her recent book, God in Captivity: The Rise of Faith-Based Prison Ministries in the Age of Mass Incarceration. What she’s found is a movement by ministries to take over functions of counseling, education, and rehabilitation in penal institutions — often to the exclusion of tested secular methods and non-Christian faiths.

“I don’t want to be overly negative,” Erzen says, “but I think [prison ministries] should perhaps focus on the policy reasons behind mass incarceration. But I also think, talking to people inside prisons, ministries are a real lifeline for a lot of people — for dignity, for community.”


Humanities Washington: When evangelical groups campaign for “prison reform,” what are they asking for?

Tanya Erzen: There’s a real split. On the one hand you have [conservative activist] Pat Nolan and Chuck Colson who say prisons are a problem—that we have too many people in prison. They see it as, “Prisons are not cost effective — how do we improve conditions?” At the same time, the vast majority of groups that go into prisons and prison ministry—they might be from a local Way of Holiness church—they’re not thinking about prison reform; they’re there because it’s a captive population, and they can proselytize. There are so many broad issues that religious groups could address [with inmates] in a really profound way, as ethical and political questions, and they just don’t, because they’re really focused on [proselytizing to] individuals. Something like 80 to 90 percent of women in prison have experienced some kind of violence before going into prison. That’s not to say people aren’t responsible for that they’ve done, but that’s an astronomical number. So you have women inside with all this trauma, and what kinds of groups are coming in to address that? What happens when you have a religious group imposing their perhaps socially-conservative agenda on a group, as opposed to people who know how to do trauma and healthcare? But [religious groups] can do it much more cheaply for the state, so I think that’s appealing.

Do other faiths have the same access and impact in prisons as Christian teaching?

The short answer to that would be no. Many prisons have a diversity of religious groups, so they might have an outside volunteer come in and facilitate a particular group. But in terms of heavy presence of ministry, groups tend to be 80 percent Protestant Christian. But the way chaplaincy works is that a chaplain can have lots of discretion within a prison to decide who is allowed access. There are all kinds of ways that other religions are marginalized. If you’re a prison that tends to be fairly rural, and in a state where the closest organizations are evangelical Christian, that’s going to shape who comes into the prison. In Florida, when I went to one of the faith-based prisons, the chapel had been refurbished and paid for by an evangelical megachurch. It had instruments and a sound system, and it was the only air-conditioned building in the whole prison — in central Florida. Things like that are very basic examples of the coercion that goes on.

There’s no difference, in terms of better outcomes, for people in an evangelical program versus a secular program.

The Nation of Islam has a long history of religious outreach to black prisoners in America. Does that persist?

I did research in Angola prison, and some of the men who were part of that Black Muslim organizing really helped to change the conditions of that prison. After Elijah Muhammad died, the congregation split and many people became more aligned with traditional Sunni Islam. The prisons are very aware of that history, and I think sometimes say, “You don’t have a space to meet, you don’t have a particular person to meet with.” They’re very concerned, because they’re aware of that history. But if you have a warden who’s a Christian, they’re going to be biased toward Christian groups.

You’re involved in education for prison inmates. Between ministry and secular education, which has proved more valuable to inmates?

The Rand Corporation did a study in 2013 on inmates who received education in prison, and they’re 43 percent less likely to return to prison. With a lot of prisons, especially in the South, there’s this whole movement — the Baptist seminaries are running college programs in prison, and they’re the only opportunity those inmates have to get a college degree. Inmates get an associate’s degree, and sometimes a bachelor’s degree, in Christian ministry. This was started in Angola Penitentiary, and it’s not for people getting out soon — it’s for people who have 20-plus years. The idea is that they will send graduates of the seminary to other prisons in that system to be missionaries. They don’t use that term, because of potential legal connotations, but they say those people will be “moral guides” to other prisoners.

What do we know about the recidivism rate among ex-inmates who received religious counseling?

There were studies commissioned by Prison Fellowship Ministry and others to look at this question. There’s a law professor who very methodically went through all of these studies and showed there’s no difference, in terms of better outcomes, for people in an evangelical program versus a secular program. A lot of ministry studies contain selection bias and problems with methodology. But a prison ministry will say, “We can effect a change that secular programs can’t. We transform people from the inside.” It’s called a heart change. Well, you can’t measure that empirically.

Tanya Erzen is presenting her free Humanities Washington talk “God Behind Bars: The Rise of Faith-Based Ministries in an Age of Mass Incarceration” around the state. Find out where she’s appearing next.

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