In his book, The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark writes about the revitalizing force of early Christianity “in response to the misery, chaos, fear, and brutality of life in the urban Greco-Roman world.”
So, too, can it be at this difficult time for the American prison system, when faith-based volunteers are picking up the cost of programming in under-resourced prisons.
Perhaps no better example of this exists than at America’s largest maximum security prison, Louisiana State Penitentiary (aka “Angola”).
Lessons are being learned there that contradict the logic of simply warehousing offenders.
They are lessons being adopted throughout Texas and demonstrated at the Darrington Correctional Unit program created by Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.
Our researchshows these innovative programs offer the promise of genuine rehabilitation and ultimately lower taxpayer costs.
Drawing upon its unique history, Angola is the only prison in America that allows inmates to run their own churches — a practice expanded in the aftermath of a 1974 federal consent decree finding conditions at the prison famously “shocked the conscience of any right-thinking person.”
Federal intervention provided new resources, allowing inmates to design programs of their own choosing.
Since informal congregations had long existed at Angola, inmates were allowed to formalize these into active “churches,” producing an ecumenical panoply of worship featuring Baptist, Pentecostal, Catholic, Methodist and other denominations collectively referred to as the “Angola Church.”
Worshipers of other faiths, including a small contingent of Muslim inmates, also practice at the prison.
When, in 1994, Congress revoked Pell Grant eligibility for convicted felons, denying the subsidy for educational attainment to millions of prisoners, warden Burl Cain felt elimination of the resource was uniquely harmful to Angola.
Educational programming was among the few incentives for good behavior available for his prisoners. Cain reached out to friends connected to the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary to explore the possibility of their providing some minimal collegiate-level coursework as a gift to the prison.
NOBTS administrators were reluctant. First, how could the school pay for it? Second, the guiding mission of NOBTS is to to “equip local churches” with ministers, not simply to offer classes for students unaffiliated with active congregations.
Upon learning about the existence of Angola’s fully functioning inmate-run churches, however, NOBTS administrators decided that providing this service could fall within their mission.
Upon learning of the isolation of Angola’s inmates, they also felt called to act.
A prison seminary could produce graduates right into the Angola Church and equip what later became Angola’s unique inmate minister program.
With training in grief counseling and conflict management and a commitment to service, Angola’s 85 active, carefully chosen inmate ministers are deployed throughout the prison as counselors, church leaders, hospice orderlies, seminary tutors, literacy coaches and religious visitors to Death Row.
Left to their own devices, many inmates convicted of serious crimes and serving life in one of America’s toughest prisons turned to religious worship and service as a means of coping with long-term confinement.
In our research exploring two dozen inmate-run churches at Angola and a religious tradition we date back over 100 years, we also found religion playing a powerfully rehabilitative role.
Religion enhanced inmate wellness and assisted in the reduction of suicide and violence, mostly through personal attention to inmates’ needs and private pains, often expressed for the very first time through religious practice or in a religious context.
More importantly, our research shows inmates find great rehabilitative value in being allowed to “give back” to the prison through voluntary religious service.
Our research captures inmates’ descriptions of faith as essential for “flipping hate to love” and looks deeper to explore the rehabilitative aspects of religious faith itself.
Michael Hallett is a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of North Florida and senior research Fellow at Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion. firstname.lastname@example.org