The Chronicle Review

The Christian Agenda Behind Inmate Education

Neil Lauron, Columbus Dispatch, AP Images

April 30, 2017

Some years ago, I began giving volunteer philosophy and religion lectures to inmates in a maximum-security prison. I quickly learned that they enjoyed few educational opportunities. Wisconsin offers almost nothing for prisoners seeking higher education, and, sadly, few states do.

In 1994, the federal government ended funding for Pell Grants for inmates, effectively eliminating their educational opportunities (this despite a limited Obama administration effort to restore them). State budget crunches have devastated artistic, musical, drug counseling, and other programs too.

Into this gap has stepped an army of volunteers from faith-based organizations. Promising to rehabilitate inmates at a low cost, some of these groups have received federal and state grants. However, their activities raise complex questions. Are they coercing captive populations into participating in religious services? Do the programs really help people? Does supporting them with tax dollars violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause?


God in Captivity: The Rise of Faith-Based Prison Ministries in the Age of Mass Incarceration By Tanya Erzen

(Beacon Press)

In her thoughtful and informative book, God in Captivity, Tanya Erzen, an associate professor of religion at the University of Puget Sound, explores such matters. She focuses on the stunning growth, in programs and in power, of conservative evangelical organizations in American prisons, and she analyzes the ethical and constitutional problems that this development entails. She has gained remarkable access to prisons and interviews a diverse population within them: wardens, prisoners, pastors, volunteers. She makes a compelling case for a more-limited prison ministry emphasizing redemption and forgiveness, but her argument could benefit from a deeper engagement with Christian theology.

Erzen devotes each chapter to her experiences with a different prison, primarily in the South. She directs a college program in a prison in Washington State but conducted interviews in Florida, Louisiana, Ohio, and Texas. In those states, she talked to people involved with organizations like Prison Fellowship, founded by the former Nixon aide Chuck Colson, and Kairos Prison Ministry, founded in 1976. These groups devote themselves to rehabilitating inmates. Their programs accept prisoners of different religious backgrounds but operate from an explicitly Christian perspective. They insist that inmates can only be truly rehabilitated if they undergo a change of heart, which sometimes means adopting Christianity. They sponsor workshops, develop small groups that allow inmates to monitor one another’s behavior, and help inmates re-enter society. Some faith-based organizations operate in entire wings of prisons.

The faith-based prison ministries have been booming. Forty-one percent of federal prisons are developing residential faith-based programs, and Florida has 16 entire prisons designated as faith-based. Erzen discusses Texas’ Darrington Unit, a maximum-security prison that runs a wing for a seminary granting degrees in Christian ministry. Erzen maintains that evangelical organizations often enjoy excessive power within these institutions. She visits the giant, 6,300-inmate Angola prison in Louisiana, for instance, and notes that its seminary offers one of the few educational opportunities there. Like others who have written about Angola, she discusses how its powerful former warden, Burl Cain, showed considerable favoritism to evangelical Christians. She challenges Cain’s claim that evangelical ministries transformed the lockup’s mayhem into order, arguing that demographic and administrative changes instead accounted for the decline in disorder under his leadership.

Evangelical seminaries in prisons sometimes present problematic ethical views to inmates without the opportunity for intellectual dissent. For example, Erzen writes about a group in a women’s prison in Ohio that advises inmates to be subservient to men and to denounce lesbianism as sinful.

In some prisons, inmates are forbidden from gathering for religious purposes unless they have a clergy member present. But in prisons outside of large urban areas, there may be no non-Christian members of the clergy available. In the last decade, Texas imposed a series of restrictions on Muslim inmates, using a shortage of imams as an excuse to restrict their religious liberty. In 2014 a federal judge found this policy unconstitutional, and Texas has continued to confront legal challenges to its policies toward Muslim inmates.

Erzen casts empirical doubt on the claim that faith-based approaches to recidivism are effective. She analyzes too the goals of many conservative evangelical prison ministries. They often ignore the injustices of the system in which they work. They shy away from social and political issues to focus only on matters of the individual heart. Or they embrace a theology of retribution that sees criminal punishment as just and necessary.

In contrast, Erzen explores forms of restorative justice, which is designed to broadly consider the harm that a crime causes. It pays attention not just to consequences for the victim and the community but also to the pain of the inmate. Sometimes, it includes a mediated encounter between an offender and a victim. In other cases (which I have observed), it involves a group of inmates who listen and respond to victims unconnected to their own crimes. Erzen broadens the discussion about restorative justice to make a compelling case for ending mass incarceration.

She is particularly good at telling the inmates’ stories. Too often, people unfamiliar with religious life behind bars dismiss it as an attempt to con people. Erzen understands that in or outside of a prison, people join religious organizations for all kinds of complex reasons. Intellectual curiosity, loneliness, the need for spiritual guidance, a personal crisis, or a religious experience can all lead someone to participate in a religious group.

However, Erzen sometimes shows a thin understanding of Christian theology. Too often, she’ll mention an important thinker or theme in a perfunctory or misleading way. For example, she discusses St. Augustine casually, blaming him for our current punitive attitude toward inmates. She repeats the cliché that he relies excessively on Greek philosophy and endorses an impassive conception of God. And her account of John Calvin trades in stereotypes about original sin, without exploring the Calvinist tradition’s complex account of redemption.

Finally, she praises liberation theology without recognizing the controversies around it within the Roman Catholic church. In the 1980s, the Vatican wrote several important documents that criticized some liberation theologians for their reliance on Marxist thought and their ecclesiology. Yet Erzen doesn’t seem to be aware of such discussions.

Despite these shortcomings, this is an important book, a deep and sensitive reflection on the purpose of ministry and education behind bars.

Derek S. Jeffreys is a professor of humanistic studies and religion at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay. His newest book, Dignity and Degradation: The Scandal of American Jails, will be published next year by New York University Press.