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.


~ by David on April 3, 2010.

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