The most prominent evangelical mascot for prison ministry in recent memory is, of course, Charles “Chuck” Colson. Known to many as Richard Nixon’s “hatchet man,” Colson later served time in federal prison for crimes related to the Watergate scandal.
Like many prisoners, once incarcerated, Colson turned to faith to reassess his life, sparking a dramatic shift in personal direction that led to his founding of the prominent nonprofit Prison Fellowship. Colson spoke often of the need for Christians to be active in addressing the problem of crime, as well as in the reform of prisoners and prisons.
While widely influential as a prototype, Colson’s efforts pale in comparison to the much broader scope of Christian evangelical involvement in prison ministry today. Both local church groups and large institutions have followed in Colson’s footsteps. Evangelical involvement in prison ministry is both more ecumenical and more widely engaged in than ever before.
While many evangelicals are familiar with prison ministry groups ranging from local church volunteer efforts to larger organizations like Prison Fellowship, newer and lesser-known models for evangelical ministry inside US prisons are drawing from innovative work at some of America’s largest and most violent institutions. This work emphasizes equipping prisoners for their own ministry and equipping prisons with resources from religious volunteers.
As we document through our on-site research, these new approaches are being primarily developed in desperately underresourced maximum-security institutions. Christians continue to be engaged in greater and more creative ways of serving fellow citizens of all faiths in America’s prisons.
Both in the US and in other countries, a growing number of volunteer-based religious programs are the dominant source of prisoner rehabilitation in custodial settings. Correctional facilities face unprecedented challenges: overcrowding, violence, suicide, the prevalence of mental health issues, and the overall aging of prison populations. Rampant violence, extremely high levels of recidivism, mounting taxpayer cost, and difficulty retaining employees typify recent headlines from the world of American corrections. And with the additional challenge of tightening of correctional budgets, prisons lose highly valuable vocational, educational, and treatment programs.
Research shows that prisons do little to meaningfully correct past transgressions of offenders, and the government’s own data demonstrate that incarceration does not meaningfully deter future offending. New research from the nonpartisan Sentencing Project highlights the possibility that mass incarceration could become a permanent feature of American society. While policymakers seem to be at a loss regarding next steps, criminal justice reform is among the few priorities in Washington embraced by both Democrats and Republicans.
Many American prisons have today become so violent that they comprise what Cambridge University prison scholar Alison Liebling calls “failed state” institutions. In failed state institutions, even the most basic levels of safety and control are not provided by authorities. These institutions not only cause more human damage than they prevent but also produce emotionally stunted citizens and actually elevate the likelihood of reoffending.
Two such institutions are Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola and Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, where we have conducted extensive peer-reviewed research on the impact of religious programs. As the two largest maximum-security prisons in the country—which in 2021 are still referred to by the names they carried when they were slave plantations—both have histories tangled in slavery, convict leasing, and mass incarceration. The majority of people serving sentences at both institutions are Black.
But it is institutions like these where evangelical ministries have been welcomed to pilot new programs to reach prisoners, such as specially designed seminary education options.
Nearly two decades ago, Congress revoked Pell Grant eligibility for convicted felons, removing a valuable collegiate education resource for inmates nationwide as part of the 1994 Crime Bill championed by then-Senator Joe Biden and President Bill Clinton. (The ban was reversed in December 2020.)
For Burl Cain, then the warden of Louisiana State Penitentiary (LSP), the Pell Grant revocation posed a threat both to his job and his personal welfare. Cain viewed collegiate education as a powerful resource for reducing violence and making his prison less punitive. Fearing prisoner unrest and facing continuous overcrowding, Cain reached out to New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (NOBTS) to inquire about offering some courses as a gift to his prison. As Cain put it, he wanted the school’s faculty to come “on campus” at the penitentiary.
After initial reluctance, NOBTS decided that instruction at LSP not only fell within its mission but also affirmed its mission—and eventually the school opened a fully functioning extension center on the grounds of the prison. In 2015, NOBTS graduated its first small cohort of trained ministers, developing a tailored curriculum focused on process counseling and conflict management. The seminary at LSP was opened in 1995 and remains operative today with funds raised by NOBTS and other Christian charities. No taxpayer money is used for this work.
Seminary graduates soon found their greatest workload not in the prison’s chapels but in dorms and cell blocks, leading their own small congregations, helping with counseling, and assisting chaplains. Trained in process counseling and conflict management, the seminary grads gave voice to prisoners’ spiritual and mental health needs.
“We pay for this program out of our own pocket as an offering. We’re proud to do it. We certainly don’t force it on anyone,” NOBTS dean Jimmy Dukes told us:
Other programs would be welcome. Where are they? I would say that the best thing that could happen would be where it becomes the norm that people of all faith—whatever—get to tell their story. That would be the best thing. Perhaps then we can begin to discuss genuine rehabilitation and giving people a second chance, and begin to look at nonviolent people in prison. Is their sentence fair? That’s what I would hope.
In what is quickly becoming a new national model, public-private partnerships between prison wardens, religious educators, and faith-motivated volunteers are now operating in 29 states and over 50 maximum-security prisons nationwide. Three seminaries now exist in women’s prisons, the third of which launched earlier this year.
One ministry started by former NFL coach Joe Gibbs has partnered with the College at Southeastern to provide an accredited bachelor of arts degree in pastoral ministry to 30 eligible men. To qualify, candidates must have 15 remaining years to serve of their sentence and complete a college application. Most of the first class of 25 graduates will be voluntarily transferred to minister in other prisons in January.
Paid for with private external funding and endorsed by powerful legislative advocates, a prison reform movement not dissimilar to that initiated by Quakers two centuries ago is now underway in the United States. Motivated by concerns about prison conditions and the dearth of available programming, religious volunteers are stepping up to deliver a new purpose-driven ministry inside America’s failing prison system.
While evangelicals do not monopolize this ministry, they certainly dominate it. An essay in The Atlantic observed that despite Catholics and Protestants being involved in prison ministry, the latter far outnumber Catholics as prison chaplains and volunteers. “There’s a really good reason why the Evangelicals are whooping us [Catholics] at prison ministry,” said one priest. That reason? Protestant Christians told prisoners that there was a place for them in their churches when they were released, and they would help them reenter society.
University of Scranton criminal justice professor Harry Dammer told The Atlantic that evangelicals “have the most intense faith, the most belief that you have to go into prisons and help people.”
Since the 1950s, criminologists have recognized the value of involving previously convicted citizens to help others reform. Faith-based and addiction-focused programs have been particularly active in utilizing peer-based “wounded healers” as assets in rehabilitative programming. Former addicts, for example, are often viewed by those in recovery as the most effective drug treatment counselors—not because they have academic credentials in addiction therapy, but because they have overcome the challenges of addiction.
But the most important aspect of this research has been documenting the benefits of peer counseling for those receiving help, as well as for those offering it. Mentors themselves are often the chief beneficiaries of the relationships they experience with offenders.
We spent five years on site at the Louisiana State Penitentiary exploring the impact of the NOBTS seminary planted on its grounds, observing worship and prayer led by those incarcerated, surveying over 2,000 prisoners, and interviewing prisoners and staff.
Unrestricted access allowed us to observe religious worship and prayer in disciplinary cell blocks, on death row, in the prison hospice, and in prison chapels. We produced several peer-reviewed studies exploring aspects of the penitentiary’s Inmate Peer Ministry program, particularly exploring how it positively impacted inmate adjustment, prisoner misconduct, and self-harm.
What we found is not only that seminary students and those attending prisoner-led congregations reported lower levels of disciplinary convictions but also that they were more likely to report conversion narratives, religious involvement, and new positive self-identities.
As a result, lower levels of misconduct were attributable to these conversion narratives, increased religious commitment, and positive self-identities. In sum, increasing religiosity had a prosocial influence, confirming the significant and positive role religion plays in rehabilitating prisoners.
We’ve additionally studied peer ministry programs modeled on the LSP experience in other jurisdictions, with similar findings. Overall, peer ministry programs increase religiosity while also improving mental health and reducing violence among prisoners. All participation is gratis and voluntary.
What some critics call “conversionism” and “prayer” actually involves vesting prisoners with a level of social and spiritual capital that helps them both survive prison and succeed after release. Prayer and Bible study deliver rich social capital to prisoners, and religious conversion offers a powerful source of identity change.
Faith-based programs are successful in reducing recidivism. There is additional empirical evidence that even the act of simply visiting prisoners has been found to reduce recidivism. Over the past several decades, an entire research literature has emerged confirming the positive and prosocial effects of religion on crime reduction and restorative justice approaches.
There is plenty to criticize about evangelicals’ historical neglect of criminal justice reform. As part of the right-wing political surge of the 1980s, church leaders emphasized “law and order” over addressing the realities of structural racism and social inequality. Aaron Griffith argued in a recent CT piece that much evangelical work in prisons is aimed at religious conversion, noting that “prayer is not enough” to reform America’s prisons and that “for too long, evangelicals have compromised with the punitive politics of law and order.”
But these characterizations ignore the complexities of the issue. The roots of America’s mass incarceration, as historian Elizabeth Hinton has documented, run back to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs—initiatives that, for better or worse, didn’t enjoy wide support from white evangelicals and other conservatives. Today, leaders across the ideological spectrum have begun taking responsibility for their roles in building America’s carceral state.
Additionally, the laws and institutions governing who ends up in US prisons are in many ways separate from those governing how people are treated once inside. It conflates problems to discredit contributions in one sphere because of failures in the other.
And the record clearly shows that, in practice, evangelicals have long played and continue to play an outsized and positive role working inside America’s prisons. Both research and Scripture point to prayer as a key resource of social capital; religious conversion is a key resource for prosocial identity change.
Participation in voluntary religious communities sponsored by evangelicals in fact achieves progressive aims, bolstering the lives of prisoners with social capital otherwise inaccessible to them. Even small-group prayer has been shown to transform people in prison.
Modest interventions like attending volunteer-led Bible studies in prison have been linked to significant recidivism reduction following release from prison. For example, a new study found that a one-week faith-based curriculum led by volunteers as part of a partnership between the American Bible Society and Good News Jail and Prison Ministry reduced posttraumatic stress disorder and enhanced prosocial and virtuous behavior among those in jail.
It is time to take an objective look at the role of evangelical prison ministries. Today’s record shows that evangelicals remain a powerful force for good, willing and eager to bring Christ’s love to their neighbors behind bars. In addition to salvaging collegiate education for prisoners, for example, NOBTS accomplished something more novel: They assumed personal responsibility for the caretaking and rehabilitation of prisoners in some of America’s toughest prisons.
Michael Hallett is professor of criminal justice at the University of North Florida. Byron R. Johnson is Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences at Baylor University. They are coauthors of The Restorative Prison: Essays on Inmate Peer Ministry and Prosocial Corrections (Routledge, 2021).
This essay is part of an ongoing CT series exploring various perspectives and ideas about how Christians engage the criminal justice system.
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