•April 3, 2010 • Comments Off on Introduction

Julia Ireland

Can religion and faith turn around the lives of inmates?

Through our research, we found that religion is an important part of many inmates’ lives. We have contacted criminology experts and prison ministers, and researched prison ministry sites created to foster communication of programs both on the national and international level. We’ve also looked at online programs for inmates as well as their family and communities offering services including Bible study, religious literature libraries and prayer support. Through all of our research, we have come to the conclusion that religion and faith do in fact play a major role in the daily life of many inmates in prison. However, we cannot say conclusively that religious rehabilitation is particularly effective in reducing recidivism rates.


A Different Kind of Prison Ministry

•April 3, 2010 • Leave a Comment

David Karas

A men’s prison is probably the last place where many would expect to find a religious choir, but that is exactly what a Presbyterian Minister has formed in Bordentown.

Reverend Dawn Adamy serves at the Albert C. Wagner Youth Correctional Facility, as well as on the campuses of nearby Rider University, Lawrenceville, and The College of New Jersey, Ewing. Once each week, she bridges the gap between her seemingly unrelated ministries by bringing students from Rider University’s Westminster Choir College to Wagner to provide vocal lessons to inmates seeking to become a part of the institution’s religious choir.

Rev. Adamy’s students help to train about a dozen inmates each week for their 60-90 minute allotment of time behind the bars of the institution. “It’s a wonderful training ground for them,” she said of her students, who are studying music.

However, the college students are not the only ones who are benefiting from the experience. The inmates, too, not only improve in their vocals, but also in their person spirituality.

“It’s really a way for them to build a community of support…,” she said. “They begin to build a relationship and trust with the students and inmates. They are in an environment where it is hard to find trust.”

She described the experience of singing in a group as one of the most vulnerable to exist, as one who may be nervous or anxious about their vocal abilities is forced to overcome inhibitions in a public setting.

“I think when you find yourself at this low point…this is the crossroads,” she said of the inmates at Wagner. “This is the time to figure out which path they will take. They want hope.”

Rev. Adamy reflected on her experiences at Wagner since beginning the program about two years ago. She finds great joy in brining faith to a place where many believe there is none, and helping to show the inmates what God has planned for them during the remainder of their stay behind bars, as well as after they are released.

“It’s inspiring to see the possibility,” she said. “It gives me life.”

Faith Behind Bars: Additional Resources

•April 3, 2010 • Comments Off on Faith Behind Bars: Additional Resources

Julia Ireland

INPM (International Network of Prison Ministries)

The INPM’s purpose is to bring prison ministries involved in crime prevention and rehabilitation through the Word of God worldwide to one Internet site to facilitate communication. It also provides easy access for inmates and their families to get effective help from prison ministries that best serve their needs either by counseling services or to locate a nearby ministry to request literature, join Bible study courses or ask for prayer support. The website can be translated in 35 languages, and provides contact information for prison ministries worldwide: Africa (149), Central America and Caribbean (40), Europe (109), North America (3,677), Oceania (28), and South America (13). The page also has featured prison ministries, one being Persekutuan Oikumene Hidup Baru (New Life Eucomenical Union). This ministry formed in 2004 by a group of former prisoners in Medan, Sumut, Indonesia. They use the INPM website to connect with other prison ministries worldwide to ask for guidance and suggestions on how to improve their ministry.

Prison Fellowship is a national organization created to seek transformation of prisoners and their reconciliation to God, family, and community through the power and truth of Jesus Christ. Its mission is to reconcile relationships with God through Jesus Christ to correct distorted moral and spiritual values. Local churches and Prison Fellowship partner to restore prisoners to Church and community as contributing members, because “no life is beyond the reach of God’s power.”

“I was in prison, and you came to visit me,” Jesus told His followers. Then he clarified, “Whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”



 Click this link to see Easter Sunday at Jesse R. Dawson, Sr. State Jail, Texas.
“Isn’t it just like God to transform a roomful of downcast women clad in shabby prison garb into women adorned with the hope of the risen Christ? It was an Easter unlike any we’ve witnessed in 30 years!” –  Mark Earley, President of Prison Fellowship

These are Links to Prison Fellowship programs created to meet the rapidly evolving needs of prisoners and their families and to increase awareness among the free population:


    Angel Tree reaches out to children with parents in prison by sharing Christ’s love during the Christmas season by giving gifts and restoring families.


    InnerChange Freedom Initiative provides programming for prisoners to help them transform their lives and re-enter society successfully.


    More than 700,000 prisoners are released from prison every year and more than half go back in prison within 3 years. Justice Fellowship believes in correcting the US prison system, making communities safer, and reconciling victims and offenders.


    Operation Starting Line is partnerships between Prison Fellowship and Christian ministries to bring the transforming message of Jesus Christ to prisoners across the country though in-prison outreaches.


    Out4Life is a program in which Prison Fellowship teams up with corrections officials, community leaders, and other faith-based organizations to try to stop the trend of former inmates going back to prison  


A Ministry of Hope

•April 3, 2010 • Leave a Comment

David Karas

For one prison chaplain, his job is all about hope.

Reverend Emmanuel Bourjolly is chaplain and supervisor of the religious department at the Albert C. Wagner Youth Correctional Facility, Bordentown.

“Everything they were living for is not there anymore,” he said of the inmates he works with. “This is where the Church comes in. The Church comes and instills hope in their lives.”

Rev. Bourjolly was first exposed to prison ministry during his internship at Wagner while pursuing a Master’s degree at Princeton Theological Seminary. Not long after, he was invited to begin working there as chaplain to oversee faith development and enrichment activities for the prison population.

“It is my job to serve them,” he said, explaining that no matter what recognized faith they choose to follow, he must provide an avenue for their worship. Wagner hosts mainstream faiths such as Catholicism, Judaism, and Islam, as well as less popular institutions like Wicca, which two inmates currently practice.

While many in prison pursue religious enrichment for spiritual developments, others seek protection in a gang-like atmosphere. According to Rev. Bourjolly, Islam is practiced by a majority of the inmates at Wagner, which many join to receive protection from others within the institution. The belief group functions much like a prison gang for these men.

However, this has never deterred Rev. Bourjolly, who sees the lack of hope as playing an important role in the life of those incarcerated in his institution, going back to their own upbringing.

Growing up in poor neighborhoods filled with boarded-up homes and crime, he said, contributes to an overall lack of hope in the young lives of the men he works with. “The life of kids in the city is different than the life of kids in the suburb.”

This lack of hope is only compounded while behind bars, and continues after release, that is, unless, according to Rev. Bourjolly, an inmate commits to a life of faith.

“This is the only way we can change the lives of these young men. We’re giving them something to emulate; we’re giving them a sense of responsibility,” he said, describing stories of inmates he has worked with in prison who have been able to turn their lives around after release.

He often encounters many former inmates from Wagner in the community, some who are living successful and productive lives, and others who are struggling with a sense of hopelessness.

Rev. Bourjolly also discussed the importance of strong faith institutions on the outside to continue the work of his ministers behind bars.

“Who is going to help them carry that burden?”

Religion in Prison: A Constitutional Obligation

•April 3, 2010 • Comments Off on Religion in Prison: A Constitutional Obligation

David Karas

When it comes to inmates practicing their faith behind bars, they have the law on their side.

 “We’re constitutionally obligated to provide them with faith-based programs,” said Alfred Kandell, prison administrator at the Albert C. Wagner Youth Correctional Facility, Bordentown.

While similar legislation was in place since the early 1990’s, Congress took steps in 2000 to ensure that inmates are afforded the opportunity to worship whichever faith they choose. The “Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act” prohibits any burdens placed on inmates or churches seeking to provide faith services to a prison population.

According to Kandell, as long as it is a recognized religion, any inmate has the right to practice it behind bars. And that means that the institution must provide the avenues through which they can pursue faith enrichment activities.

However, this status came only after a series of struggles that took place across the nation, when wardens and Corrections officials prohibited inmates from participating in particular religious practices that posed a potential security threat.

Among the most publicized of these struggles surrounded the allowance of a Native American Sweat Lodge for inmates, a practice that was often denied to prison populations due to its construction. During ceremonies, the small hut-like structure, often constructed of sticks, is draped with blankets as worshippers huddle inside. This prevents anyone on the outside, particularly guards, to monitor activity on the inside.

Native American inmates across the country filed charges against corrections officials, citing the Congressional mandate and a Supreme Court ruling that upheld it. One of these cases took place in New Jersey, and resulted in the construction of a Sweat Lodge on the grounds of South Woods State Prison, Bridgeton. At first, inmates being held at other institutions were transported to South Woods to participate in the ritual.

While this was a success for the inmates, it did not come without compromises. Prison officials did not allow for the wearing of colored headbands, as is customary during ceremonies, due to potential gang representation and promotion. The Supreme Court’s decision included a clause describing the importance of considering inmate requests along with security concerns.

A Supervising Corrections Officer at South Woods State Prison declined to confirm or deny the current existence of a Sweat Lodge on prison grounds, characterizing it as “personal information.”

Related coverage:

Religious Rehabilitation?: Researching the Effect of Religion on Prisoners

•April 3, 2010 • Comments Off on Religious Rehabilitation?: Researching the Effect of Religion on Prisoners

Laura Herzog

John Krimmel, an Associate Professor of Criminology at the College of New Jersey, left his church after his divorce and did not return for fourteen years. Now that he has returned to the faith, he says, he has never felt better. He is an active member of his congregation and is taking sermon classes in his spare time to improve his public speaking skills.
Perhaps, most importantly, this renewed interest in religion has also led Krimmel, who holds a Ph. D. in Criminal Justice from the City University of New York, to set on a quest to explore more extensively how religion relates to his field. He now is being funded by the Federal Government to study inmate behavior on release. A big part of his research is how religion might impact prisoner rehabilitation for the better.

“I’m interested in urban communities seeing a drug dealer as a threat to tranquility and pushing for his arrest, but what role do these same churches have in his reintegration? They may be quick to shame somebody, but does the level of forgiveness match the level of the shame?” says Krimmel. “That’s a question I’m posing for research, that may be philosophical, but it can be measured.”        

Krimmel may be on to something in linking the two subjects. There has been wide-spread interest in the effect of religion on crime, but surprisingly little actual data exists on the subject. However, Krimmel is hopeful that his study will add weight to the arguments of religion’s proponents in the criminological field.

“In my research for this study I’m finding that religion offers a connection to the community,” says Krimmel. “Religion is not just about holding a Bible, it’s about going to church and I think it also offers a sense of forgiveness to somebody.”

Religion: A Force for Bad?        

In recent years, concrete studies on the potential for religion as a positive factor in criminology are surprisingly less plentiful than those that have discussed its potential to lend individuals sources of justification for their crimes. A search of “’religion’ and ‘terrorism’” on the scholarly article search database EbscoHost yields 899 results, while a search of “’religion’ and ‘rehabilitation’” yields only 226.

And it would be an understatement to say that in the past decade, religion has not faired particularly well in the mainstream media. A search of “religion” on the New York Times’ website yields these stories from the past week: “Exiled Pedophile Priest May have Continued Abuse,” “The Government and the Militia Movement,” ”What Makes Chechen Women So Dangerous.” In a fearful America, debates have raged over how religious people can justify criminal acts. According to Mark Juergensmeyer, professor of sociology and religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in the preface to his 2003 book “Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence,” “What puzzles me is not why bad things are done by bad people, but rather why bad things are done by people who otherwise appear to be good—in cases of religious terrorism, by pious people dedicated to a moral vision of the world.”

No Hard Feelings
In the midst of all this criticism, one might fear that the majority of Americans would be turned off to religion. Yet, according to a 2010 “Millenial” survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the majority of Americans view religion favorably. And in a separate survey by the group from August 2009, eight years after then-president George W. Bush announced his ‘faith-based initiatives, a stable majority of Americans (69%) view faith-based programming as socially beneficial. A slight plurality of Americans (38%) believe that faith-based groups are more equipped to educate and counsel prisoners than other nongovernmental or state organizations. Nonetheless, actually statistical evidence in support of this belief is surprisingly lacking.

A 2003/2005 survey of American youth by the National Study on Youth and Religion (NSYR), the largest such study conducted to date, found that religious youth were not only less likely to be involved with drugs and crime—there was also a Clear correlation between increased religiosity and increased chances of a positive life outcome.

Yet, according to Christian Smith, professor of sociology at Notre Dame University, and the author of the 2005 book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers that was based on the NSYR study’s findings, to what extent religion directly plays into this correlation remains uncertain. Smith cites extent external factors like genetic personality type and indirect effects, such as religion strengthening family bonds, which might in turn directly influence improved life outcomes as other possible explanations. Nonetheless, there remains a surprising lack of research further exploring this association.

According to Krimmel, it is this lack of research has motivated him to study the topic. “This is very unresearched in criminology. This is pretty untouched ground.”

Laying the Foundations in 1992
This is not to say that Krimmel is alone or that research has not been attempted in the study of the correlation between religion and recidivism. But in every case, there have been considerable pitfalls to deal with.
Eighteen years ago, Bruce Stout, Krimmel’s fellow associate criminology professor at the College of New Jersey, conducted an extensive study on the intersection of religion and prison with Rutgers University criminologists titled “Prisoners, Prison and Religion.” He spent eighteen months on the road, visiting eighteen prisons in eight states across the country, talking to inmates, prison chaplains and imans, and prison staff.

However, the group met difficulties, inherent and situational, which impeded the fulfillment of their research into the correlation between religiousness and recidivism.

One of the inherent difficulties, according to Stout, was the idea of this dichotomy between the two things that has prevented many social scientists from linking the two institutions together. “Prison is about ‘evil, about bad,’ and religion is about ‘piety and goodness,’” said Stout. “So how could these two things mix?”

Secondly, “religiosity” is notoriously difficult to measure. Science is about observation and religion is about “mystery, things that happen within individuals,” said Stout. “And how do you measure that?”

Also, at the time of Stout’s particular survey, access to prison records was especially difficult, because Senator Robert Byrd (D-West Virginia) moved them from Washington to his state in the “middle of nowhere” in a political move, according to Stout.

A Penitential Past
Regardless of factors inhibiting the sociological study of religiosity in the prison system, prisons and religious programming have a rich shared history in the United States, according to both Stout and Krimmel.

“Prisons are an American invention,” says Krimmel. “They were created by the Quakers as an alterative to the death penalty. It was a humane thing. The root word of penitentiary is ‘penance.’ The doors to prisoner-entry are very low so you had to bow to get in. It was about reform through repentance and prayer.”

 According to Stout, the right to practice religion is one of the few rights that prisoners maintain. Legally, prisoners are entitled to a variety of religious services, including but not limited to Sabbath services, Sunday services, Saturday services for Jews. Also, adds Stout, Muslims need the ability to pray three times a day facing Mecca, access to an iman.
The amount of religious programming offered to inmates varies by institution and often followed from the beliefs of wardens (many of whom have infrequent contact with prisoners) about its importance. According to Stout, the most religious programming tending to be offered by religious institutions in the South.

“It varied,” says Stout recalling his visits to prisons around the country. “Some institutions really embraced religion and some just did the minimum they could to get by. There is some debate over the recognition of fringe religions. For example, Rastafarians argue that they should be recognized as a religion and therefore they should get pot in prison. The Supreme Court rejected their case.”

Another element of this issue, says Stout is that some religious groups like Native Americans and Jews, who are less well-represented in the prison populations, tend to suffer.

“Christianity and Islam are the big ones and others tend to fall by the wayside,” says Stout.

Religion’s impact on an inmates’ behavior in prisons
But practice aside, how did religiousness actually effect an inmate’s time in prison? This was where Stout’s study yielded its richest data. During his tour of the country, Stout drew several conclusions. Young black men from the South were the most likely to profess religiousness and older white men were the least likely. In general, however, Stout found that professed affiliation and the popularity of religious programming depended on many factors that were not necessarily grounded in belief.

“Bible study is an opportunity to get out of the cell and break routine. But also, it’s an opportunity to meet ‘free-worlders’ and to meet women,” says Stout. “Inmates would say that many inmates ‘talk the talk’ but not many ‘walk the walk’. They’d say examples would be a Muslim who prays five times a day facing Mecca, but when there’s pork in the cafeteria, he’s the first in line.”

Similarly, according to Stout, a high percentage of sex offenders tend to gravitate toward religious programs, likely because of the protection that the religious group offered them from other inmates. In some prisons there was a high rate of conversion, but Stout added, “it could appeal to a parole board to say you were ‘born-again.’”
Furthermore, says Stout there is also a degree to which religious inclinations are suppressed in prison, based on what he termed the “inmate code of conflict.”

“The number one in that code is ‘Never befriend your jailer. This is war, it’s us against them,’” says Stout. “And if you’re religious…there’s a real conflict there.” Perhaps following from this internal conflict or else symptomatic of inmates only ‘talking the talk,’ Stout noted that an inmate’s professed religiosity rarely prevented him or her from violating the prison rules.

Nonetheless, Stout adds that there were several times when he came into contact with a prisoner who he felt did ‘walk the walk.’

“Those that I found to be truly devout had a level of solace, comfort and acceptance, that others didn’t. Forgiveness, acceptance, helping a brother…that’s a very positive thing to witness,” he says.

Still, this begs the question: can criminologists and religious ministers isolate the factors that motivate these inmates to truly embrace religion? Why do some inmates grow more religious during their stay, while others further alienate themselves?
In an e-mail response to this question Stanley Kendrick, a parishioner at St. Barnabas in Bayville NJ who has been involved in prison ministry for the past 15 years, offered some personal insight.

“Often a person must hit bottom and lose almost everything before they start searching for an answer,” he wrote. “This is true even for people not in prison. The men we deal with…there (sic) dignity is stripped away from them. Even fellow inmates can be dangerous. For a person to turn to God under these conditions, well I would like to say would not be unusual, but unfortunately that is not the case. From the moment the inmate hits the prison doors he may be groomed by a gang member, or try to remain as isolated as possible, so as not to be affected by their surroundings. Those who do come to us we give them our very best. We try to go by a certain code in prison ministry “listen, listen, love, love” we know that lasting change is up to them. We try to open their hearts, minds, souls, to the Revelation (Jesus) and Holy Spirit given to us all by God.”

But what about recidivism?
Krimmel continues to plug on with his research and questions, all directed toward the issue of recidivism.
 “Virtually two thirds of released prisoners return to prison in three years, but one third don’t return,” muses Krimmel. “They keep studying ones that don’t recidivate and I have a sense that the one third that don’t return have made a decision and that decision involved religion.”

He is certainly supported by individuals like Kendrick, who has witnessed the healing power of religion first hand and believes that among ex-prisoners who continue to participate in religious services upon release there is a “dramatic reduction in recidivism.”

Furthermore, the nation’s largest prison ministry organization, Prison Fellowship Ministries, which, according to Stout, is active in some but not all prisons, was famously begun by an ex-inmate. Chuck Colson, a former senior advisor to President Nixon who was involved in Watergate and served time in federal prison, where he was born again. “Moral reformation is the only answer to crime,” Colson has since said.

Nonetheless, the bottom line when it comes to faith and its especial potential to reduce the recidivism rate is that there is no conclusive evidence. Many scholars and religious ministiries, and self-professed reformed criminals like Colson, seem to believe faith is key, but Krimmel is looking to determine whether this is primarily related to sociological factors or to the actual elements of faith.

For example, he is considering the fact that religious ministers offer a relatively simple message and one-on-one attention that might be ideal for the average prisoner to grasp.

“The prison population, they’re generally learning disabled, addicted in some way or insane—or some combination of the three, and they’re generally pretty hard to teach,” he says.

“Are conversions impacting on recidivism?” muses Krimmel. “I suspect they are? Theoretically, one of these two things is happening with non-returners: Either the person ages out of crime, just gets tired of it or they’ve been accepted into the community and my opinion is that religion can be a fulcrum for that acceptance.”

Time for Study, Time for Reform
While Krimmel’s research is as of yet inconclusively, the public would be wise o await the conclusion of his study with anticipation. To overlook the potential of religion for good in the American public discourse is almost criminal in itself. And such has been the case largely thus far, with the mainstream media having not explored this issue—or the issue of prison reform—in much depth at all.

This in a debt-ridden country notorious worldwide for proclaiming “freedom,” while being ranked number one among all nations for its incarceration rate, the number of people imprisoned per capita, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies. New Jersey’s prison system costs the state $1.3 billion annually, according to statistics from the N.J. Department of Corrections. Nonetheless, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s announced seven percent cut to state prison expenditure received little to no attention in the public discourse. The question should now: be where is this funding withdrawal coming from and where will new efforts be concentrated? Prison reform, and the potential factor that religious rehabilitation might play in it, should not be overlooked anymore. And once available, Krimmel’s findings will hopefully lend an important perspective to the discourse.

A Local Perspective

•April 3, 2010 • Comments Off on A Local Perspective

Josh Caulfield

People say all the time, that you’re life comes to a complete end once you go to prison. For some people though, it’s prison that opens up their eyes to what they have been missing for all their lives. For many, it isn’t until they’ve lost it all, that they realize that they have been missing religion.

            Doug Gerardi, an employee at The New Jersey Department of Corrections, spoke about how religion becomes an important part of prisoner’s lives once they become prisoners. “For whatever the reason may be, when a lot of our prisoners come in initially, they don’t have a strong sense of religion in their lives. We’re not entirely sure why this is, perhaps their generally unstable upbringings, but things change a lot once prisoners are confined in our cells.”

            Whether they’re gang members, newcomers, or returning criminals, every offender faces a pivotal point in their lives when they need to ask themselves “What am I doing?” For a lot of these perpetrators, religion is what they turn to. It’s a beam support that many people turn to when they can’t stand up by themselves anymore.

            “It’s amazing how complete and utter solitude can change a man and opens up their eyes,” says Gerardi.  Many of our prisoners turn to religion because it almost acts as a way for them to prove to themselves that they’re making a change and turning around their lives. I see all of the time that people begin to develop a religion the longer they’re in here. Perhaps it’s the surroundings that constantly remind them of it, or just the fact that they have so much time to do true soul-searching.”

            Gerardi isn’t the only person who’s seen transformations take place throughout the duration of certain sentencings. 

            Sheriff Showoumni, a Ewing NJ local who spent sixteen years in The New Jersey State Prison for an undisclosed crime, spoke on his findings for the better half of two decades. “It’s not like you just get locked up and start believing in new stuff, it takes an incredible amount of time to yourself to be able to realize your life is missing something huge. People know that they’re gangs that flow together in prison, but it also is associated with your religion.”

            Prior to getting locked up, Showoumni was an admitted Atheist who had never given the thought of any God a chance. He spoke about how it took him approximately three years to adapt Christianity to his life. “I remember I spoke to countless people about religion, and how it affected their lives in and out of prison and it changed my life forever.”  

            Showoumni said that there were a ton of other inmates that had similar stories such as his, with self-proclaimed Atheists adapting new and opposing lifestyles. “Mostly everyone that comes in (sentenced to time in prison) goes through major life-altering transformations and more times than not, religion is the key factor.