Does Our Past Define Us?

A central question in criminology and criminal justice is whether a person’s past behavior is a good predictor of future behavior.  Probation and parole investigations traditionally focused on that question as part of a judicial or parole board recommendation.  The general public tends to believe that persons convicted of crimes are very different from us and claim “once a crook, always a crook”!

Many convicted criminals do reoffend and violate probation and parole conditions.  When given opportunities to turn their lives around however, most offenders do not reoffend.  They are not significantly different from us.  Most of us engage in some irresponsible behavior during our youth, but our past does not always define who we are.

Events this past week in our nation’s capitol brought our attention to the question of incidents in the past and their relevance for the present.  In testimony before the U.S. Senate Judiciary committee Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford offered gripping, emotional, and heart-felt testimony that captivated millions of Americans.

Judge Kavanaugh and Dr. Ford both spoke of past events in their lives.  She related a victimization experience that deeply affected her through high school, college, and up to the present.  He spoke of numerous incidents of drinking beer with friends at parties but denied drinking so much that he could not remember what he had done; and vehemently denied engaging in any sexually inappropriate or assaultive behavior.

Americans and the Senate Judiciary Committee are divided on who is telling the truth, largely along political party lines.  But an underlying question is whether an incident that might have occurred 35 years ago while the two were in high school should be a determining factor in approving a Supreme Court Justice.  Perhaps the FBI Investigation (being conducted as I write these words) will shed more light on the testimony of Judge Kavanaugh and Dr. Ford.





“Does our past define us?”




The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing is a “teaching-learning moment” that deserves our continued attention regardless of the outcome of the investigation and impending vote in the Senate.

The testimony of Judge Kavanaugh and Dr. Ford illustrates that while our past does not define us, it does affect us.  Both of them moved on with their lives since the alleged incident in 1982, achieving educational goals at outstanding institutions.  Both attained prominent positions in their respective disciplines.  But their testimonies revealed stark differences in how well they “moved on.”  Dr. Ford told how the alleged assault affected her through college and even in a recent home renovation to add a second front door.

Judge Kavanaugh testified about the disastrous effects on him, his reputation and to his family— not due to the alleged incident but because of the false accusations leveled against him that supposedly occurred 35 years ago.  He acknowledged heavy drinking in his youth but emphasized his educational and judicial achievements that qualify him for his nomination.

Our past need not “define us” but our behavior in the past may well affect us and others years later.  Dr. Ford testified that shocking events are more indelibly imprinted in our memory than other events (confirmed by other psychologists).  This may explain the apparent inconsistencies in her memory for details of the alleged incident; and why Judge Kavanaugh may not remember the event (if it in fact occurred).

The testimonies we heard last week also reminds us that our past behavior may have effects on others in ways we are unaware and do not remember.  Gender differences are important to acknowledge.  The “#MeToo” movement has brought our attention to the immensity of the problem of sexual harassment.  More men are beginning to recognize the reality of “male power and privilege.”  More of us are beginning to acknowledge that it is not just a “women’s problem” but one that adversely affects our wives, our daughters, and all of us.  It affects all our lives, including the workplace, our governing institutions, and yes– our judicial system.

          “Who we are in the present includes who we were in the past.”

                –Mister Fred Rogers

Our past need not “define us”—but it does take strength and effort, support of friends and family, and personal resolve to restore ourselves and others who may have been affected by our past behavior.  Persons of faith believe that only through trust in God who cares for the welfare of all, can we find the strength and resolve to move on from hurtful events in our past.  We also believe it is important to acknowledge wrong-doing as expressed in the ecumenical version of the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”  May Almighty God help us all to acknowledge our past as a necessary step in moving forward and not allowing it to define us today.


“Faith With Meaning”


Criminology and Theology

The New Testament scripture lesson that was read and preached a week ago in many church pulpits (Mark 7:1-8ff.) had to do with the religious leaders’ questioning and criticizing Jesus and his disciples for not washing their hands before eating.  Jesus responded by revealing the hypocrisy of their accusation.  They were more concerned about ceremonial hand-washing according to the Old Testament laws than they were about “clean minds and hearts.”  Jesus said what truly “defiles” people is not unwashed hands, but “unclean” minds and hearts!  In addition to the sins of theft and murder, he included the sins of “deceit, unrestrained immorality, envy, insults, and arrogance” (Mk. 7:21-CEB).


Jesus’ message was directed to religious leaders and all Christians to examine ourselves as to the true meaning and purpose of our practices.  His denunciation of the religious leaders’ accusative question (“why don’t they wash their hands?”) seems strange to us today; but it should urge us to question some of our beliefs and practices.


The gospel story brought to mind the sharp criticism leveled against religious people today by comedian Bill Maher in the movie “Religulous.”  Maher criticizes religion as “ridiculous” and highlights what he views as some of the strange beliefs and practices of persons who are fundamentalist Christians, Jews, and Moslems.  Despite my discomfort with Maher’s sharp criticism of people of faith, I see a parallel with the criticism of Jesus toward the religious leaders of his day.

Do our beliefs and practices have meaning?  Are they clearly founded on major points and recurring themes in Scripture?  I’m not suggesting that we are answerable to Bill Maher; but that we examine our beliefs and practices to assure that they reflect what Jesus taught.  He taught that love is the “greatest commandment.”  Jesus exemplified that by showing love to many folks who in his day were not very “lovable”!


Beliefs and practices that divide rather than unite people; that exclude rather than include; that ignore the oppressed and marginalized rather than overcome the cultural and social conditions that foster social problems—these are the focus of the life and teaching of Jesus.  This is “faith with meaning.”  It’s not complicated.

“Compassionate Justice”

Tags:  Criminology and Theology 

Last Sunday the message from many church pulpits was about Jesus’ statement that he was “the bread of life.” The Gospel text from John 6:51-58 undoubtedly made some heads “spin” (“flesh and blood”?!), but I focused on the promise of Jesus to people of faith that he “abides in us.”


What does that mean?  What possible significance could a statement that “Jesus abides in us” have for persons in the 21st century?  For most Americans perhaps, not much.  But for those who are believers and people of faith, the promise in the Scripture text rings true.  For many it is a promise of comfort, assurance, and that we’re not alone in facing the “ups and downs” of life.

Does the promise of Jesus’ presence, of his “abiding in us,” offer any directions to Jesus-followers of how this divine presence might be put into action?  Yes, I believe it does.  It is the beginning of “compassionate justice”—and another example of the connections between theology and criminology.

Humankind, we believe, was made “in the image of God.”  “So God created humankind in his image… male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).  We are all therefore “children of God” (though many dispute this image, based on behaviors, beliefs, and evidence to the contrary!).  The real significance of this belief is illustrated by the teachings of Jesus, that we are to treat all persons as “children of God” who were all created in the image of God.

          “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. …. Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:35-36, 40).


Thousands of persons are involved in justice work.  Working with law violators, those suspected of crimes, and with witnesses and victims of crime requires persistence, perseverance, and patience.  Law enforcers from police to attorneys, judges, probation officers, jail and prison officers are held to high legal standards themselves.

Law enforcement and criminal justice professionals who are able to see all persons as “children of God” (despite their behavior!) are more prepared and capable of exercising “compassionate justice.”

          An appropriate question of all persons is:  How do your religious or spiritual beliefs, and your views of God and humankind inform and direct how you relate to other persons?

“Criminals and Us”


Criminology and Theology

My apologies for the delay in regular postings to those who are regularly following my blog.  Preparing for and teaching a summer class on “Punishing Criminals: A Biblical View of Justice” took some extra time.  But I thank you for your patience, and for your interest in exploring the connections between crime and theology.


I was reminded this week of the similarities we share with those convicted of felony crimes and sentenced to prison.  We began a new 10-week session with a group of participants in the “Prison Fellowship Reentry Ministry” for which I volunteer.  The first day we introduced the group of nearly 30 guys to the challenges we all face in trying to make changes in our lives.  In addition to focusing on self-assessment and taking responsibility for bad decisions that got them in prison, we integrate a faith dimension toward making changes.

Two Bible verses that point toward the need for personal change and the difficulty of making changes were written by the Apostle Paul.

“I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”  –Romans 7:15

Paul was jailed for charges of violating laws of the Roman authorities; and openly admits that he struggled to live up to his calling as a messenger of God.  The men in the prison group identified with the Apostle’s words—but were also surprised that even a man of God struggled to do what was right.


We turned to a second statement of the Apostle Paul that points to the importance of faith in turning one’s life around.

          “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” –Philippians 4:13


As with all religious and spiritual care services administered through the Prison Chaplain’s Office, our Prison Fellowship Reentry program is open to participants of all religious beliefs.  Many of the prison inmates were encouraged by these Biblical statements.

Even the Apostle Paul struggled with doing right?!  …like me?!

Maybe, just maybe, faith in God, in Christ—or “my Higher Power”—can help me make the changes I know I’ve gotta make!

Yes, my friends: there IS a “criminology-theology-connection”!

*[As always, I appreciate your comments, feedback, and questions relating to this post.]

Religious Programs in Prisons


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.” 


          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).

“Immigrants, Refugees, and Justice”



Criminology and Theology

Illegal immigration

Law on Refugee Status

Runaways, Immigrants, and Refugees

Decades ago I worked for a Juvenile Probation office in a large southwestern city.  We worked with juvenile age children and youth who had been arrested by police.  Their offenses ranged from runaway to violent crimes.  Youth arrested for burglary, theft, drugs, and assault charges were easier to deal with.  That is, our job was clearly defined, most kids admitted their guilt, their parents supported our actions, and the Juvenile Court decision was quick, clear, and final in most cases.  

The runaway cases were difficult and perplexing.  First, running away from home is only a “status offense” for juveniles; not even a “misdemeanor.”   We just warned them of the dangers of running away and took them back home to their parents!

Runaway youth pose a challenge for several reasons.  It is not a crime for which the Juvenile Court has jurisdiction and Probation Officers have no power to force any behavior change.  We asked, “why are they running away?”  We learned that many runaway kids are not just seeking independence and thrills.  They are seeking safety from dysfunctional and threatening family settings.  Home visits confirmed juveniles’ stories of mental, physical, and sexual abuse; parents’ drug abuse, neglect, and lack of adequate food and nutrition.  Our intervention was limited to a report and referral to Family Protective Services in the most serious cases; but that was neither an immediate or long-term solution to the problem.

I see a parallel between runaway juveniles, immigrants, and refugees.  In every generation and in every nation, persons have sought a better life and taken risks by “running away” from their homes.  Many are desperate, escaping war, conflict, and unsafe living conditions.  Others are in search of jobs in order to feed and clothe their children.  The fact that thousands of Americans hire them and depend on this source of cheap labor for jobs that few Americans want to do has encouraged the flow of illegal immigrants.


The Law Against Illegal Entry

Entering the U.S. illegally is a crime; but is classified only as a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine ($50 to $250) or up to 6 months in jail for the first offense.  The misdemeanor classification and light punishment is evidence that the U.S. Code does not regard illegal entry as a serious crime.

The federal government responds to illegal immigration through the U.S. Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.  Following their arrest, persons charged with illegal entry are entitled to have their cases heard by an Immigration Judge. Presidential administrations and Congress have taken different approaches over the years in responding to illegal immigration.  Our current administration has significantly elevated the enforcement of illegal immigration.

Are Illegal Immigrants Dangerous?

Despite the claims of some Americans, illegal entry poses no public safety risk to citizens.  Are they “dangerous”?  No, the vast majority are not, as documented by crime statistics and several research studies.

Illegal Immigrants versus Refugees

According to the International Justice Resource Center, it is not a crime to seek refuge when fleeing war-like conflict and threats to one’s personal safety.  Modern refugee law has its origins in the aftermath of World War II.   Article 14(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which was adopted in 1948, guarantees the right to seek asylum in other countries.  The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees establishes the definition of a refugee and the rights afforded to those granted refugee status.

The 1951 Convention does not define how nations are to determine whether a person meets the definition of a refugee. That is left to each nation to develop, so there are disparities among national governments.  Despite national differences the overall goal of international law on refugees and human rights is to provide protection to individuals forced to flee their homes because their countries are unwilling or unable to protect them.


Runaways and Immigrants Seeking Refuge

The same question applies to juvenile runaways and persons seeking refuge: 

“Why would anyone leave a home where there is shelter, food, water, and familiar surroundings—for a “runaway life” with no guarantee of shelter, food, water, and the constant threat of being exploited, assaulted, and arrested?”

The only reasonable answer is that things must be pretty bad back there at home for anyone to leave it for parts unknown.

Biblical Justice and the “Alien”

Holy Scripture has plenty to say about “aliens” (from Hebrew nokri) that also means “immigrant” or “foreigner” in English.  “Don’t mistreat or oppress an immigrant, because you were once immigrants in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:21- CEB).

“Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens.  You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt…” (Leviticus 19:34-CEB).

“You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice…. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this” (Deuteronomy 24:17-18 -NRSV).

“Karl Barth and Prison Ministry”

Tags:  Karl Bart

Criminology and Theology

The name Karl Barth comes foremost to mind in discussions about theology and theologians today.  But many students of theology are not aware of Barth’s connection with criminology.

Karl Barth (1886-1968) is generally regarded as the most outstanding theologian of the twentieth century.  As the main author of The Barmen Confession he was the intellectual leader of the German Confessing Church that resisted the Third Reich of Adolph Hitler.  Barth taught theology for nearly five decades. After he was removed from his faculty position at Bonn by the Nazis in late 1934, Barth moved to Basel where he taught until 1962.

He is best known for his multi-volume work, Church Dogmatics, and his Commentary on Romans.  Karl Barth wrote many other books and essays in theological journals; and he can be credited for thousands more pages written about his theological contributions by scholars and students of theology.

Barth is less well known for his prison ministry.  While teaching at the University of Basel, Barth regularly visited and preached to the inmates at Basel Prison.  A collection of his prayers and sermons in the prison chapel in Basel between 1954 and 1959 have been compiled in Deliverance to the Captives.




One sermon resonated especially with me.  A sermon entitled “The Criminals With Him” was based on a single scripture verse: “They crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left” (Luke 23:33).

“They crucified him with the criminals.  Which is more amazing, to find Jesus in such bad company, or to find the criminals in such good company?  As a matter of fact, both are true!  One thing is certain: here they hang all three, Jesus and the criminals, one at the right and one at the left, all three exposed to the same public abuse, to the same interminable pain, to the same slow and irrevocable death throes.  Like Jesus, these two criminals had been arrested somewhere, locked up and sentenced by some judge in the course of the previous few days.  And now they hang on their crosses with him and find themselves in solidarity and fellowship with him.”  ….

“They crucified him with the criminals. Do you know what this implies?  Don’t be too surprised if I tell you that this was the first Christian fellowship, the first certain, indissoluble and indestructible Christian community.  Christian community is manifest wherever there is a group of people close to Jesus who are with him in such a way that they are directly and unambiguously affected by his promise and assurance. ….  To live by this promise is to be a Christian community.  The two criminals were the first certain Christian community” (Barth, Deliverance to the Captives, pp. 76-77).

This great theologian who wrote volumes on all of the doctrines of the Christian Church also declared the Word of God in simple, clear language to “the common man.”  Few of us would envy the day-to-day lives of those serving time in prison; but the residents of the Basel Prison sixty years ago were privileged to hear the gospel message proclaimed by one of the greatest preachers and theologians of the century.

God calls us all to minister to the hungry, the sick, and the imprisoned (Matthew 25:34-40).  Karl Barth knew his calling.  He put down his pen, left the university and declared the good news to prisoners in his “sermons in a Swiss prison.”  Barth’s prison ministry serves as an example for our own ministry to prisoners.

“Religion in Prisons–Now”

Tags: Constitutional Right to Religious Expression


Religion in Prisons–Then

This blog post is a continuation and extension of “Religion in Prisons—Then” (see above). I encourage you to review the introduction in that post regarding the close relationship between prisons and religion.  Religion has been important in prisons since their development, for two reasons: the right to religious expression and practice is a Constitutional Right; and religion has been recognized as beneficial to prisoners’ adjustment to the prison environment and for prisoners’ successful return to society after completing their prison sentence.

In the previous blog post I shared the first of two prisoners’ religious rights cases with which I have a close personal connection. The first case of Cruz v. Beto involved a former professor and mentor of mine and a prisoner plaintiff in a Texas prison located close to the criminal justice graduate school where I was studying.  The second case occurred some thirty years later and involved a faith-based prison program that I had visited (in a different state prison) as part of a research study.  This second federal court case also has special significance for me in my role as a Prison Fellowship volunteer in a program that meets constitutional guidelines for religious programming in a state institution.Prisoner2

Americans United v. Prison Fellowship Ministries 

In December 2006 a U.S. District Court Judge in Des Moines, Iowa found unconstitutional a faith-based, in-prison rehabilitation program that was operating in the Newton Prison Facility of the Iowa Department of Corrections.  The State of Iowa had contracted with Prison Fellowship Ministry to conduct the rehabilitation program called “InnerChange Freedom Initiative” (IFI) in the Newton prison. The lawsuit was brought by Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU).  The plaintiffs complained that the state’s contract with this religious organization to provide the rehabilitation program involved an establishment of religion and was thus in violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as applied to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment.  (Details of the case may be found at 432 F. Supp. 2d 832).  The plaintiffs, “Americans United,” viewed the court ruling as a victory and a strike against state-supported religion.  Prison Fellowship / IFI and their supporters viewed the final court judgments as support for religious liberty and the right to offer programs in other prisons.

    Dr. Winnifred F. Sullivan, Professor of Religion at Indiana University and Maurer School of Law, was called as an expert witness in the case.  Her summary of testimony and analysis of the case is invaluable for understanding the constitutionality of religious programs in prisons (see Prison Religion: Faith-Based Reform and the Constitution, Princeton University Press, 2009).


Good Intentions—but Unconstitutional

The InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI) program in the Iowa prison was modeled after the Prison Fellowship Ministry program begun by Charles Colson who was an assistant to former President Richard Nixon before serving time in a federal prison for illegal actions in the Watergate affair.  Based on his personal experience, Colson was convinced that prisoners’ lives could be changed more completely and effectively through a Christian intervention program.

Testimony from prisoners in the Newton Prison and from representatives of Prison Fellowship indicated that requirements of the program reflected what Sullivan describes as an evangelical Christian view that limited participation to prisoners who were willing to comply with that particular form of Christian beliefs, worship, and Bible reading.  Jewish and Muslim residents (though few in number) were not welcome in the program.  But even many Christian participants felt less than welcome.  A Roman Catholic prisoner for example described his feelings of exclusion at being told that his Catholic Bible (containing apocryphal and deuterocanonical books) was not appropriate for use in the IFI program.

Another prisoner was terminated from the program for refusing to sign the required statement of faith that held a position of “biblical inerrancy” and that the Bible was in general historically and scientifically true.   Required twice-weekly worship services, “revival meetings,” prayer services, Bible studies, and required personal testimonies of participants’ religious and spiritual experiences were some of the other elements of the IFI program in the Newton prison that led the Federal Judge to rule in favor of the plaintiffs.

The Iowa IFI program provided religious programming that they believed would instill positive changes and pro-social behavior to help released prisoners adjust to society and not return to prison.  Regardless of their good intentions, the Court ruled that the nature and requirements of the program violated the First Amendment clause against establishment of religion by a state agency.

Constitutionally Acceptable Religious Programs

Religious programs that meet constitutional guidelines can and are being conducted in federal and state institutions.  A Wisconsin federal court ruled in support of religious programs run by the National Chaplains Center of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).  The court in Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Nicholson [469 F. Supp. 2d 609 (W. Dist. Of Wisc., 2007)] ruled against the plaintiffs, finding that religious programming in VA facilities did not violate the religious establishment clause.

The Iowa prison program was shut down following the AU v. IFI case; but Prison Fellowship is operating several religious programs in other state prisons that comply with the First Amendment.  I studied one such program in Minnesota (“The InnerChange Freedom Initiative: A Faith-Based Prison Program,” presented at the Annual Meeting of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, Cincinnati, 2008).

The two key factors that distinguish the program from the unconstitutional Iowa program: (1) Voluntary and more inclusive participation; and (2) funding of paid in-prison staff by private donors rather than by the state.

Prison Fellowship programs to assist prisoners in pro-social change and responsible behavior are now called PF-Academy.”  They operate in prisons of 26 states and aim to serve prisons in all states by 2026.  Are they effective?  A study by the Minnesota Department of Corrections found that fewer than 1 percent of participants who successfully completed the program returned to prison, compared to an average recidivism rate of 40 percent of state prisoners.

“Religion in Prisons–Then”

Tags: Freedom of Religion

Prisons and Religion

The idea of prisons in America was first proposed by a religious group.  The Quakers (or Friends) promoted prisons as an alternative form of punishment to replace the cruel and inhumane physical and corporal punishments that were used in England, Europe and colonial America.  The Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia was designed to hold criminals securely in an institutional setting and make them penitent for their criminal behavior.  Despite the good intentions and limited success of this “American experiment,” the prison and “penitentiary” movement expanded rapidly in the 19th century with scores of these brick, concrete, and granite fortresses still housing thousands of convicts nearly two hundred years later.  I regularly enter the secure gates of one built in 1889 for volunteer work in the prison chapel.


Religion in Prisons has been a reality from the beginning—but not without some “hitches.”  The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to religious expression.  Constitutional rights apply equally to persons convicted of felony crimes because they are not deprived of their legal rights as U.S. citizens. The courts have determined however that “prisons are different.”  Prison inmates do not have all the same rights as citizens who are not incarcerated. The reason: safety and security are the top priorities in prison, and federal courts have given prison administrators the right to limit constitutional rights if they infringe on prison safety and security.

That includes the First Amendment right to the freedom of religion. (See Sheldon Krantz, The Law of Corrections and Prisoners’ Rights in a nutshell (West Publishing, 1983, pp. 148-151)

A couple of court cases might best illustrate the right to religion in prisons.  The two cases, decades apart in time and miles apart in location, originated very close to where I was at the time.  I share these two cases in two parts: “…–Then” and “…–Now.”

The library of the Criminal Justice Center at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas looks out over the old original “Walls Unit” prison of the Texas Department of Corrections.  Just two blocks away.  The center was built by prisoners. Its location near the prison reflected its purpose: to provide criminal justice and corrections education; and in-service training for corrections and law enforcement officers and administrators

Just three years before I began graduate studies there, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in a major case involving religion in prisons [Cruz v. Beto 405 U.S. 319 (1972)].


Plaintiff Cruz

A prisoner who had adopted the Buddhist religion complained that he was not allowed to use the prison chapel, he was prohibited from writing to his religious advisor, and when he shared Buddhist religious materials with other prisoners, the prison authorities retaliated and placed Cruz in solitary confinement, 22 hours per day on a diet of bread and water for two weeks, without access to newspapers, magazines, or other sources of news.  The Federal District Court and Appellate Court denied his appeal, holding that his complaint should be left to the discretion of prison administrators.  The Supreme Court overruled and held that Texas prison officials discriminated against Cruz by denying him a reasonable opportunity to pursue his Buddhist faith comparable to that offered prisoners of other religious faiths.

Texas prisons encouraged inmates to participate in other religious programs, provided at state expense chaplains of the Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant faiths; provided copies of the Jewish and Christian Bibles; and conducted weekly Sunday school classes and religious services.  Good merit points were given to prisoners for attending orthodox religious services, and they were eligible for better job assignments and early parole consideration.  As a member of the Buddhist Churches of America, the plaintiff Cruz did not receive any of the good merit points and was instead punished for his requests and for sharing Buddhist materials with other inmates.

The U. S. Supreme Court found that the State of Texas unconstitutionally infringed upon plaintiff Cruz’s rights to religious freedom under the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution.  The Court opinion stated that the State discriminated against Buddhism, a religion that was established in 600 B.C., long before the Christian era; and therefore denied Cruz and other prison inmates any possible benefits of the Buddhist religion that may be comparable to the exercise of any other religion, Catholic, Protestant, and other Christian denominations.


Defendant Beto

The defendant in this case was Dr. George Beto, Director and chief of chaplains of the Texas prison system in 1972.  Before taking that position Dr. Beto had been President of Concordia College in Austin and of Concordia Theological Seminary in Illinois.  As Director of Texas prisons, he was instrumental in improving prison education through a unique non-geographical school district that covered all Texas prisons; and received awards and recognition from the American Correctional Association for his work in improving prisons.

The Cruz case illustrates the challenges of changing the prison culture, the perceptions of corrections officers and administrators toward inmate residents, and the long-established prison practices.  George Beto was ordered by the Supreme Court to personally pay from his own funds the legal fees of $10,000 to the plaintiff’s attorneys.

Beto joined the faculty of the Criminal Justice Center where many graduate students (including myself) benefitted from his knowledge and personal experience in Correctional Administration.  Together we learned about the challenges of running prisons which are resistant to change, and for which citizens and taxpayers want to lock up more criminals but do so at minimum costs to the State.  George Beto was called “walking George” by prison inmates and officers for his habit of regularly visiting and walking through all prison units.  We who were his students saw him as a professor and mentor who greeted us with a smile and “Hello, young man!”

My fellow graduate students and I did not hear about the Supreme Court case involving Mr. Cruz and the Texas prisons from Dr. Beto—nor did we ask him.  We sensed that the court appellate process and final ruling was not a high point for him—but he never mentioned it nor did he ever show any animosity toward the Court or the ruling for the right to religious expression—any religion—in prison.

Today I reflect back on religion in prisons then, forty years ago.  The Supreme Court Justices in the 1972 Cruz v. Beto case declared a truth worth pondering:  that prison inmates may well benefit from the practices of a religion established 600 years before Christianity.   No citizen, including prison residents, can be denied the right of religious expression guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

To my Christian friends who have difficulty with religious diversity in America I would say “Our God is a big God—and doesn’t need our feeble, human efforts to defend this Almighty God!”  This truth is confirmed through our reading of the Bible.  We can also learn from other religious beliefs, as noted by J. Philip Wogaman in his book, What Christians Can Learn from Other Religions (Westminster John Knox Press, 2014).

The United States continues to look to jails and prisons as a “solution” to crime.  The high rate of return to prison of released inmates suggests that incarceration is neither an effective deterrent nor source of positive change for convicted criminals.  Correctional expenditures are increasingly used for security with less money going for education, rehabilitation, and treatment services.  Prison administrators are therefore turning to outside volunteers for religious services and other programs to help prisoners make positive changes and prepare for reentry into society upon their release.  Religion in prisons makes a difference: both in the prison environment and for prisoners’ successful return outside the walls.

“Biblical Justice”

Tags:  Punishing Criminals       Biblical Justice  Seeking Biblical Justice

Criminology and Theology

Justice is a major theme and emphasis in the Bible.  The Hebrew and Greek words translated as “justice” (mishpat, sedeqah, dikaiosune, krisis) are used more than 1000 times in the Bible.  “Doing what is right and fair” and “treating all persons fairly” have always been important among the people of God.  Biblical justice is more comprehensive than our Western concept of justice.  It touches every part of life: the personal, the social, public and private, political and religious.  Biblical justice includes both social and criminal justice.


Hebrew and Greek terms for biblical justice are translated into English as “righteousness,” a term that carries a connotation of “religious piety” or “personal moral purity,” thereby limiting its presumed impact to only “religious” persons and institutions.  As a term for Biblical justice however, “righteousness” refers more broadly to “doing, being, declaring, or bringing about what is right”—in all of life, the religious and the secular.

The very foundations of justice for all persons, societies, and institutions can be found in the Bible. Theologians and Bible scholars believe that the sixty-six books that make up the Hebrew and Christian (Old and New Testament) Bible reveal the nature of God, God’s revelation and actions among people throughout history and through the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.

The Bible’s teaching on justice is significant for Christians, Jews, and all persons of faith; and has had an immense impact on cultural and political developments throughout history.  People in every nation throughout the world cry for and demand justice.  We all want to be treated fairly. We want all persons, authorities, institutions, and businesses to “do what is right.”


The work of Christopher Marshall has been invaluable in my understanding of biblical justice. [See The Little Book of Biblical Justice by Chris Marshall. Published in 2005 by Good Books, Intercourse, PA.]

Justice is an Attribute of God

Biblical writers wrote of justice as the very nature, personal attributes, and virtue of God.  Justice is the very being of God.

“I will proclaim the name of the Lord; ascribe greatness to our God!  The Rock, his work is perfect, and all his ways are just.  A faithful God, without deceit, just and upright is he” (Deuteronomy 32:3-4).

Emulate God’s Justice

Human beings, who are created in the image of God, are to emulate, live out, practice and reflect God’s justice.

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8).

Biblical Hope is Rooted in God’s Justice and Faithfulness

“Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God… who executes justice for the oppressed…” (Psalms 146:5-7).

“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).

A Commitment to Action

Just as God is the epitome of justice, so also God demands a commitment from all people to act and treat one another fairly and justly.

“You must not distort justice; you must not show partiality; and you must not accept bribes… Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Deuteronomy 16:19-20).

Justice is Relational

Justice is an attribute of God and all persons are to bear God’s image in how they treat one another, so it follows that justice is all about relationships.  All persons are to act toward one another in the same way that God has acted toward them—with justice, mercy, and equity.

“You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:15).

“You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge.  Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this” (Deuteronomy 24:17-18).

“So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty.  For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).

Justice is Restorative

In contrast with the Western concept of administering justice, Biblical justice is not about punishment but about restoring the victim of injustice.  Justice is satisfied by repentance, restoration, and renewal.  Restitution and compensation to the victim are more important than punishing the perpetrator.

“But if (an offender) has caused pain, he has caused it…to all of you. This punishment by the majority is enough for such a person; so now instead you should forgive and console him…. I urge you to reaffirm your love for him…. Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive” (2 Corinthians 2:5-10).

“Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right” (2 Thessalonians 3:13).

“Let mutual love continue.  Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.  Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them” (Hebrews 13:1-3).

Criminology-Theology Connection

Biblical Justice is in many respects more complex and demanding for all persons than our Western concept of justice.  It relates to all persons in every part of life.  It is not limited to “justice professionals.”  It is not singularly focused on a “criminal” or “perpetrator” but involves the community and the victim toward the goal of renewal and restoration.

Is Biblical justice an unachievable goal?  Is it unrealistic and impossible to achieve?  No. But it is difficult in a society that is individually-focused more than community-oriented.  “Restorative Justice” is the newest form of response to criminal behavior; and has been an active component of judicial sentencing and offender change strategies in the past three decades—from North America to New Zealand.  Restorative justice is a promising approach that can accomplish what our current retributive justice has not done in the two hundred years of harsh punishment and mass incarceration.  Restorative justice promises to bring long-term change to the perpetrators of crime, the communities in which they live, and the victims who suffer the effects of crime.