Since the beginning of the US prison system, religion has been suggested as a way to help rehabilitate criminals. We talk to Tanya Erzen, a professor of religion, about why that is and what role prison ministries play in the lives on inmates.
- Tanya Erzen, author God in Captivity: The Rise of Faith-Based Prison Ministries in the Age of Mass Incarceration
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17-19 Religion Behind Bars
Gary Price: in the 1994 classic film “The Shawshank Redemption,” prisoners are strongly encouraged by their warden to embrace Christianity. In the hit Netflix series, “Orange Is The New Black,” prison is shown as a place where religion is a constant and the chapel is a staple of life, even under the state-run banner. Tanya Erzen, a professor of religion at the University of Puget Sound and author of “God in Captivity: The rise of faith-based prison ministries in the age of mass incarceration” says these portrayals are rooted in reality. She says the role of religion in American prison has been a constant from the beginning.
Tanya Erzen: Prisons have always been religious and I think some people know that history and others don’t but the first prisons in our country were called penitentiaries. Some prisons still have that term, but in Pennsylvania and upstate New York, they were created by religious reformers who thought they would be more humane than what had been operating in most places in the US until then which was hanging people, banishing people, scaffolds, and so forth. So they were believed that people would go to a penitentiary to become penitent. The Quakers, ironically, invented solitary confinement because in Eastern State Penitentiary which is near Philadelphia, they actually put people in individual cells and they hoped that through prayer and reflection that they would recover their inner light and be transformed and no longer commit a criminal act.
Price: Even though the country values the separation of church and state, Erzen says a vast majority of prisons still remain religious hotbeds of sorts.
Erzen: About 94% of all prisons, state and federal, in the US have religious programming as a really central part of how they operate. So on any given day, they’ll have local groups which, depending on where they’re located in the country, but generally tend to be almost 80% Christian and I mean protestant, non-denominational Christian doing Bible studies, worship services. But also, as states have been unable to fund programs in prisons, faith-based groups have taken over a lot of the functions that secular programs would have done. So they do drug addiction counseling, trauma counseling, they do education and other programs that might have been conducted by secular groups or people with a clinical background.
Price: According to Erzen, these Christian ministries can often be the only access prisoners have to certain services.
Erzen: Very few places now offer college because Pell grants were eliminated in ’94, so over 300 college prison programs closed. Pell grants were federal aid for low-income students and they were given to prisoners as well. So what happens today in the Baptist seminaries if you want an associate’s degree or a BA degree, the only way to do it is to get that degree in Christian ministry. Or if you need mental health counseling in a prison that doesn’t pay or have enough to pay and have good counselors there or even a psychologist on staff, you’ll go to the prison group that’s there to talk about dealing with anger management. One example of a group in a faith-based prison was Anger By His Grace May We Manage It or something, I can’t remember the exact title. You want those services but the catch is that they’re often provided by a group with a particular religious view and particular social views.
Price: Over the course of researching her book, Erzen said she talked to countless prisoners about these systems. On one hand, many inmates are incredibly grateful for the organizations that empowered them behind bars.
Erzen: People talk about it in various ways, they say, “I would have never had a chance to go to college if I wasn’t in this program,” that it gives a sense of meaning to people who are serving long sentences: life or the equivalent 50 years or more. Prison can be so dehumanizing in that people are often called by their last name, they’re often called offenders, they’re called by their Department of Corrections number. So to be in a space where you have a sense that the authority that you’re under is that of God and not just the prison is, I think, really powerful for a lot of people.
Price: But on the other hand, many non-Christians told Erzen they don’t believe the system was fair.
Erzen: I talked to a man who identified as a Muslim and was in a Christian seminary program in Texas and he said, “I’m only doing this because I’ve grown up in prison, I’ve been here since I was 17 years old. I’m now 34. I want to get an education because someday I want to get out. This is the only avenue I have.” He said he felt constantly under, his belief and faith being questioned, in a Christian program, but this was the only option he had.
Price: In fact, Erzen says sometimes the Christianity in a prison was so overpowering that it became outright favoritism.
Erzen: I was able to get to know through the first Justice Fellows Network three men who had been incarcerated in Angola prison for 24, 28, and 44 years respectively. They’re now all out and doing excellent work but they were able to tell me as a free person what it was like to live there and they said, the warden of the prison, he was warden for 25 years until last year, he’s very religious and very Christian and supported building many chapels there but if you wanted anything done for yourself you had to go to church, because on Sunday mornings the warden would come to church services and he would walk down the aisle and all the men who needed something would write their request on a tiny piece of folded paper. So, “I need new dentures,” “I need new glasses,” “I need my job assignment changed,” “I need to have this person put on my visitation list,” and as he walked down the aisles between the pews, they would slip him little pieces of paper and by the end of the day, they knew that their requests would be granted because they’d been there at church services with the warden.
Price: Such favoritism is obviously frowned upon… and can even be illegal. Erzen says there have been times where ministries overstepped their bounds and faced legal action.
Erzen: A big case was that Prison Fellows Ministry was running an entire dorm of an Iowa state prison, an entire wing of the prison. They called their program Inner Change and it was an Evangelical conversion program and men who got into that program, they had individual cells, they had their own TVs, they had better work release assignments, they often had a better chance with the parole board and so they were sued by Americans United for the separation of church and state. That case was appealed but they ultimately lost and the program had to pay back the state of Iowa money because they were using state funds.
Price: But for the most part, such organizations are careful to remain on the right side of the First Amendment. Erzen says that’s why the ministries call themselves “faith-based” instead of declaring a religion or denomination.
Erzen: That is the term that many groups call themselves but it’s very intentional because they can’t say just a Christian ministry. These are state prisons, they have to at least show that they’re being ecumenical, that this is about all faiths. But faith as a term is sort of a Christian term and as I said most of the ministries coming in are Christian.
Price: And Erzen says it’s important to remember that faith-based prison ministries can use their power to do a lot of good.
Erzen: Before the recent election, there was a lot of bipartisan support for prison reform. You had people like Newt Gingrich and Paul Ryan talking about instituting reforms to let more people out of prison, to improve paroles, to stop sending juveniles to prison. A lot of that is because of the work of Evangelical faith-based prison ministries who have sort of convinced them this is a financial issue and an issue of public safety.
Price: In the end, Erzen says she hopes these initiatives continue to be pushed by these Christian ministries to help reform the system.
Erzen: I want people who go into prisons or people who are part of churches that have faith-based ministries to sort of ask themselves a question that a former prisoner told me to ask. Are you giving people the help that they need or the help that you think they need? These people who are going in have so much daily contact with people in prison and what prisons are like, more than most people on the outside. They’re the ones who could really powerfully start to say, “Why are so many people being sent to prison for life without the possibility of parole here? Why are women growing at such a fast rate? Why are they the fastest part of the prison population? How could we reform parole and sentencing so that it’s more just?”
Price: To read more about the Christian ministries and their role on our prison system, you can find Tanya Erzen’s book “God in Captivity” in bookstores now. For more information about all of our guests, visit our site at viewpointsonline.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.
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