Religious Programs in Prisons

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Criminology and Theology 

Religion in Prisons-Then

Religion in Prisons-Now

          Religion has been a part of American prisons since their development.  In the early 1800s the Quakers in Pennsylvania developed “penitentiaries” that included religious instruction intended to bring about spiritual conversion that would change offenders and instill in them virtue and honesty.  The influence of Enlightenment ideas in the 19th and 20th centuries along with other cultural and political developments in society moved American prisons to programs based on more secular and social scientific directions. The “penitentiaries” in turn changed to “reformatories” and “correctional institutions.” 

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          The 21st century has seen a return to more faith-based and religious programming in prisons.  Initiatives that signaled the change include Charles Colson’s Prison Fellowship Ministry; and President George Bush’s White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Partnership.  Criminology and criminal justice researchers also focused on “restorative justice” as a more appropriate and effective alternative than the retributive justice emphases of American judicial and correctional practices.  Prison administrators (with the “encouragement” of appellate court rulings) also recognized the value of allowing Native American and other religious practices such as Buddhist meditation in prison programs (see the previous blog “Religion in Prisons-Then”). 

          Prison religious programs must comply with requirements under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  Religious programs in state or federal prisons may not focus on evangelizing or proselytizing; nor may they exclude any participants based on religious preference or beliefs.  Acceptable programs are inclusive and meet the standards of religious programming consistent with prison chaplains’ guidelines that accept and welcome participants regardless of their religious or theological beliefs.  (See the previous weblog “Religion in Prisons—Now”.)

          Today we have thousands of volunteers representing multiple church denominations and religious organizations who provide religious services and programs under the guidance and coordination of prison chaplains.  Because these programs are conducted largely by trained volunteers from the community under the guidance of prison chaplains, they cost far less than most other correctional programs.  O’Connor and Pallone (see below) estimate the cost of volunteer faith-based programming at $150 to $250 compared with the $12,000 to $14,000 per person served. 

  Are these programs effective?  That is a question we will examine in a future weblog.

 Source:  Thomas P. O’Connor and Nathaniel J. Pallone (Eds.), Religion, the Community, and the Rehabilitation of Criminal Offenders (New York: Haworth Press, Inc., 2002).