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Old 03-11-2017, 02:10 PM
CousinFlora CousinFlora is offline
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Default New book examines Christian programming in the US prison system

The director of the women's prison college education program in Washington state, who is a professor of religion and gender studies, has published a book on the role of Christian faith-based programming in US prisons. Knowing an incarcerated person who is of a non-Christian faith, I'm particularly finding this to be an interesting and helpful read. Her historical background is also good context generally for why the US prison system is the way it is, the outgrowth of a religiously driven "penitentiary" reform tradition in the north, and the post-Civil War racialized convict leasing system of the south.
God in Captivity: The Rise of Faith-Based Prison Ministries in the Age of Mass Incarceration, Tanya Erzen

Review here: http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/book-review/God

Book description from the publisher:
"It is by now well known that the United States’ incarceration rate is the highest in the world. What is not broadly understood is how cash-strapped and overcrowded state and federal prisons are increasingly relying on religious organizations to provide educational and mental health services and to help maintain order. And these religious organizations are overwhelmingly run by nondenominational Protestant Christians who see prisoners as captive audiences.

Some twenty thousand of these Evangelical Christian volunteers now run educational programs in over three hundred US prisons, jails, and detention centers. Prison seminary programs are flourishing in states as diverse as Texas and Tennessee, California and Illinois, and almost half of the federal prisons operate or are developing faith-based residential programs. Tanya Erzen gained inside access to many of these programs, spending time with prisoners, wardens, and members of faith-based ministries in six states, at both male and female penitentiaries, to better understand both the nature of these ministries and their effects. What she discovered raises questions about how these ministries and the people who live in prison grapple with the meaning of punishment and redemption, as well as what legal and ethical issues emerge when conservative Christians are the main and sometimes only outside forces in a prison system that no longer offers even the pretense of rehabilitation. Yet Erzen also shows how prison ministries make undeniably positive impacts on the lives of many prisoners: men and women who have no hope of ever leaving prison can achieve personal growth, a sense of community, and a degree of liberation within the confines of their cells.

With both empathy and a critical eye, God in Captivity grapples with the questions of how faith-based programs serve the punitive regime of the prison, becoming a method of control behind bars even as prisoners use them as a lifeline for self-transformation and dignity."

Last edited by CousinFlora; 03-11-2017 at 02:19 PM.. Reason: Forgot to provide the title!
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Old 03-11-2017, 03:32 PM
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The book's reviewer, Chris Zoukis, just published his own book, The Federal Prison Handbook, (491 pages). I haven't read it myself, but it is supposed to be a primer of what to expect as an inmate in a bop federal prison.

I did complete an 18 month residential federal prison "faith based" program "Life Connections" that was started because of an initiative and law promoted by President George W Bush. We went through two "contractors", during my 18 months, both of which were fundamentalist Protestant Christian churches, so their beliefs were a mainstay of the program. There were 3 other (than fundamentalist) break out groups, Catholic, Muslim and "all other", but the evangelizing came mostly from the contractor, who hired everyone who taught there.

Many inmates become strongly involved with religion while in prison, and Life Connections was influential in making faith available to anyone who was interested. My guess is that people who completed the LCP program had better results of avoiding re-incarceration after their release from federal prison, but I haven't seen any statistics even though I'm sure we were all tracked.
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Old 03-11-2017, 04:31 PM
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I'd be interested in knowing the statistics and comparing them to education only based programs which are known to have great results. The axiom for ed only programs is that the higher a prisoner goes in education, the less chance there is of recidivism. A college degree, a real college degree (not a for profit or non credentialed degree), almost guarantees a person doesn't go back. Yet, Bush, et al, reduced the budget for education, decreased granting for education, and made it more difficult for colleges and universities to come into prisons to teach. Obama's Pell Grant initiative was a start to reversing the damage Bush started, but it's just a start. And it may be ditched by the current admin.

Since programming as a whole has been greatly reduced, and the skill sets of inmates coming out of prison is very similar to their skill sets coming in, recidivism increases. IMHO, most inmates are starved for stimulation, especially stimulation that actually improves their situation so that they are more likely to parole early, get a job upon release, and stay out of prison. Consequently, the prison industrial complex produces greater revenue, especially for the private prisons.

Yes, it is nice that there are faith based programs, but such programs exclude too many people. Further, I'm not entirely sure that their recidivism rates are all that helpful. I'd rather see real education - from vocational programming through graduate level university - so that people are not wasting time and significantly decrease their chances of going back to prison. Such programs would be available to all prisoners, regardless of faith. Further, placing progressing inmates into dorms or units dedicated to their educational objectives may help people navigate education from GED preparation through thesis writing or passing the electrical contractor exam.

But, faith.
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Old 03-11-2017, 05:21 PM
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Emory Law professor and regular Washington Post contributor Alexander "Sasha" Volokh wrote an interesting Alabama Law Review article on the efficacy of faith-based prisons a few years ago.

He summarized his findings on his WaPo blog, "The Volokh Conspiracy":

Quote:
Thus, based on current research, there is no strong reason to believe that faith-based prisons work. However, there is also no strong reason to believe that they do not work. I conclude with thoughts on how faith-based prison programs might be improved, and offer a strategy that would allow such experimentation to proceed consistent with the Constitution.
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/...-prisons-work/

I do think prisons offering religious programs inside can help promote order and discipline behind those walls, if only for the sake of there being "less idle hands being the devil's playthings" and all. The less free time prisoners have on their hands to ruminate or plot trouble, the fewer problems tend to be exhibited in those environments. Of course, secular alternatives like mandatory work details or school or other programming can be just as effective at keeping people busy and out of trouble as well. So it's probably a wash.

My anecdotal observations of religion on the inside were that some prisoners sought it out as a way to "escape" from the confines of their day-to-day existence, or just to try to get away from all the drama and prison politics that tends to manifest itself when prisoners are left to their own devices, again: often with too much time on their hands. I never set foot inside the Chapel once the entire time I was down myself, but I did witness several really amazing transformations, some really hardened "bad-asses" who really mellowed out and became much more reserved after getting involved with religion (didn't matter which religion, just ANY religion) versus being so brash and getting in fights all the time. Of course, quite a few of these same individuals dumped their religious affiliations as soon as they got out, and several of them returned a few months later on parole violations like so many do. So I'm not sure the "transformation" lasts in too many cases, more of a "pray for the stay" type of phenomenon.

Still, for those serving whole Life sentences or especially those on Death Row, you really can't begrudge them at all for hoping for redemption in a hoped for afterlife. When there is so little hope left in one's current life, folks who are condemned will grasp onto any ray of hope they can, just to get them through their days until their number is finally called. And more power to them. Whatever helps provide meaning and purpose in their lives.

I do agree with Volokh in that faith-based prisons, as currently constituted, are probably unconstitutional under modern Establishment Clause doctrine. And I do think his suggestion that offering a "prison voucher" system where prisoners could choose their own prisons, whether secular or religious, would cure any such constitutional concerns. I think it would be really empowering to have specialized prisons (like ones focusing SOLELY on education, or SOLELY on programming, or SOLELY on work details, or SOLELY on faith-based pursuits, etc.) to help segregate prisoners and keep those who really want to change and focus on self-improvement in certain ways away from those who are just counting down the days, or so many just using all their free time to plot new ways to commit crime and hoping to get away with it the next time once they get out.

Maybe start building smaller new "magnet" prisons focused on recovery to replace the aging monstrosities that function mainly to warehouse people en masse. Couldn't hurt to try... and indeed, it seems like some states are moving in this direction already.

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Old 03-12-2017, 05:52 AM
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For the most part the only remaining "programs" in federal prison are mandated by Congress, residential drug abuse, GED and faith based. My biggest issue with Life Connections was that I learned absolutely nothing in the 18 months I was in the program. Course work was geared towards folks with very little formal education, so if you want to learn how to write a check, or never applied for a job, that's the place for you.

I accomplished my personal goals immediately since Life Connections got me an early transfer from an awful prison to a better one. With so few other options available, one way to force the bop to move me was to be accepted into a program that wasn't offered where I was.
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Old 03-12-2017, 07:51 AM
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See, I really don't think that a prisoner should be restricted to religion or voc-tech or 12 step based programming. A person should be allowed what they need. So, a person in a psych unit should be able to have access to religion, not just the programming necessary for him/her to get out of psych. But, it should be only if they want it.

Yes, plenty of people find god behind bars and drop god immediately on return to society. It makes sense, don't you think? With the absolute dearth of governors who are not Christian, and knowing parole is appointed by governors and likely to be christian. Since christianity has a distinct path to reception based solely on the idea of accepting jesus as your lord and savior, and really not doing much beyond that except say, hitting services and maybe a bible study after you've accepted,it makes sense that inmates are going to go that route, if only to assure the parole board that they are acceptable risks for parole. Or that they shouldn't be excluded from parole simply because they've not embraced religion, or the right religion. I mean, you want to look good to the parole board, and make the board think like you care and are taking them seriously and parole seriously, you at least wear clean clothes, make sure you're freshly shaved, and are otherwise well groomed. Meet the Charley Manson Grooming Standards and you are well behind the 8-ball in terms of having parole granted. Throw in some of that Old Time Religion, wear your cross proudly displayed, and you're hoping that it all says something very positive to the board, something that may overcome some deficits in things that actually matter - programming, write-ups, support on the outside, clear goals with an understanding of how to meet them, etc.

Religion is also a lot less expensive than anything else. Especially evangelical forms of christianity. Many forms of evangelical christianity have a mission to evangelize to specific groups of non-christians (and by non-christians, some believe that any other form of christianity than their own is not christianity and therefor fair game). They easily come into prison and set up programs in order to recruit new members. And this is where I have a problem because the benefits of membership include programming, or like fbop, getting out of a prison that doesn't cater to his safety needs and placing him in a safer environment. I mean, safety, we're talking one of the most basic needs of a human being, according to Maslow's Hierarchy. This is far more coercive, and a lot more like a violation of the emoluments clause than that sits well with me.

I'm really not into battling exclusivities - it's too much like a gang for my tastes. And you throw religious concepts into it, and people get all justified in getting all Spanish Inquisition or burn the witches about their religion, and people suffer when they shouldn't. Imho, the only programming that should be exclusive is the religious programming itself. Checkbook balancing, taxes, resume skills - those are not religious teachings. They should be open to anybody without having to deal with the burden of a religious context or the acceptance of a specific faith.

But, since some specific religions will come in for free and do stuff (in the context of their religion) for free, it's very cost effective. But you do have cases where administration won't allow conflicting religions to come in at all because, according to how that religion is interpreted by their faith, that faith is false. It just gets more complicated than it needs to.

As for Lifers and people on DR, as well as those likely to die in prison - everybody deals with their own mortality their own way. Many go down a religious path. Many, given the option especially if it was not a racial thing, would go down several different religious paths over time. Most find ways of dealing with their fate, dealing with their environment their own way. Viktor Frankl came to the conclusion that the two most important things in life were a sense of connection and a sense of purpose. Dr. Frankl came to that conclusion while in a concentration camp during WWII. I personally think that, distilled down, he was absolutely right. (I also find a smile in the irony that Frankl's purpose was to write his idea of a psychological theory into a book - a theory he had long before WWII, and that he was working on at the time he was rounded up with his family, neighbors, etc. A theory that didn't include some of his revelations from the camp - oh, the irony!). If you want to help somebody sentenced to death or a long term in prison, connect them to others and give them a purpose. And I'm not talking a grand purpose - the purpose is based on their individual talents, the market for those talents, and the value the person finds in exercising those talents. In other words, isolation and idleness are the two biggest soul crushers out there, and death row is a huge proponent of that form of torture in the form of solitary confinement until execution. This makes it much harder for an inmate to find his/her way. It also makes the religion du jur more attractive because it is the only way that an inmate connects all week long. Refuse the religion and you don't get the visit.. Don't have that visit, increase your chances of going crazy, increase your chances of the clemency board seeing Charley Manson, and not somebody who should be given a chance to make a life for himself inside prison.

But, what do I know. I'm just a casual observer.
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Old 03-12-2017, 08:43 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by yourself View Post
Throw in some of that Old Time Religion, wear your cross proudly displayed, and you're hoping that it all says something very positive to the board, something that may overcome some deficits in things that actually matter - programming, write-ups, support on the outside, clear goals with an understanding of how to meet them, etc.
Well, I can only speak of the Idaho Parole Board, but let me just say: they were quite keen on picking up on that type of "image management" tactic. Heard quite a few epic denial stories of folks getting flopped, solely on account of going in there wearing their religion on their sleeves, only to get called out on it by a couple of the savvy commissioners who were quite familiar with the ruse. Keeping in mind that the parole board's star Therapeutic Community "criminal thinking errors" course makes a big deal about using religion as a shield to justify or whitewash or minimize one's rationalizations or anti-social behaviors. I think it was "Thinking Error #8" back when I went through the watered-down version, called "Cognitive Self-Change."

So yeah, if you go in there too cocky and brash, and start acting all "Holy Roller" on the board, you can't always expect things to go smoothly once they start highlighting any disciplinary problems or lack of programming goals and the fact that you haven't exactly been "walking the walk" so to speak, despite your newly-found "Come to Jesus" moment.

Quote:
But, since some specific religions will come in for free and do stuff (in the context of their religion) for free, it's very cost effective.
Yes, in fact, some of the proselytizing/evangelizing was so thinly-veiled, at least at the main state prison Yard, it makes you wonder how they've gotten away with it so long.

Take Kairos for example -- a pretty well-known evangelical prison ministry. They'd get a bunch of people to sign up to worship year round, solely on their semi-annual ritual of bringing these huge bags of homemade cookies that they'd distribute by the thousands -- literally a dozen of these huge assed freshly-baked cookies: chocolate-chip, macadamia-nut, white-chocolate, the works -- and go from unit to unit, tier to tier, and distribute these little baggies to every single prisoner in the whole damn compound. All 1500+. That's a lot of cookies!

Of course, inside the baggies there was often a little piece of scripture or two to digest with your dessert:

"The wages of sin is death."

Well, now that's a comforting thought. Thanks for the yummy cookies though.

Blatant sectarian proselytizing with exclusive state-sanctioned access to be the only group allowed to come in and do that on a facility-wide scale, allowing their message to reach everyone in the entire compound. But of course, hardly anyone complained. After all, they were pretty damn good cookies. Way better than you could buy on commissary anyway.

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Old 03-12-2017, 09:56 AM
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I'd expect Idaho to be up on image ruses. Bible belt states, especially where the Gov. is evangelical - not so likely. Gov. appoints fellow evangelicals, sometimes with no experience in the criminal justice system - can make a big difference down in the Bible Belt.

I'm more convinced of a person's religious transformation when they are quiet about it, yet try to work out options through their chosen religion. Sure, some religions require the wearing of specific clothes, and such things can be in your face, or they can be quiet - when the wearing of religious garments is natural, rather than constantly adjusted or referred to - so it's not a big deal. But, if you only wear your cross or your kippah or your holy Mormon underwear when meeting with staff, lawyers, or parole - it's probably a put on. But, it takes a bit of experience to suss that one out. Imagine a parole system in which one parole board member meets with inmates and writes a report. Imagine that the board member is evangelical and new and has no experience with the criminal justice system. How easy would a blatant appearance of religion succeed as a ruse for aiding a person in getting a positive recommendation? Especially if the entire interview can be derailed to talk about religion?

Nice that a religious organization can come in and drop off cookies but family cannot, even on birthdays. I'm not saying that a single person should be allowed into gen pop with a bag of cookies while everybody else has commissary, but a nice family visit? With cookies? Maybe Mom's mac and cheese?

When I've got an inmate in county for a hearing and that inmate hasn't seen his family in forever because his home prison is always about as far away as can be, I always try to make the hearing last through lunch. This way the family and I can have a "working lunch" and I can order in pizza or something. I never bring in food I've prepared on my own for fear that it won't be acceptable to security. I always order pizza for security as well. I figure, the chance to eat something that comes from home with family is such a rare thing that if I can facilitate it, I'm going to. This, of course, means that I'm sitting in the room with them, usually in a corner, headphones on (listening to the morning session) so that they can have a modicum of privacy.

But, imagine, if families could prove themselves to the facility and be allowed to have a family visit that includes bringing in cookies or mac and cheese. x-rayed and sniffed, but still - the ability to eat together from something other than a vending machine - helps establish bond and maintain connections. The isolationist policies just do nothing to allow families to help with connection and bond in that way.

Instead, complete strangers interested in "saving your soul" are allowed to distribute homemade cookies with a biblical fortune attached.
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Old 03-12-2017, 10:42 AM
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I was surprised by the prominence of religion (predominantly Christianity) in jail in Canada. I can see why it appeals to some guys as a way of coping, and also it's one of the few avenues to put some activity in your life - for example most of the music activity in the jail was connected to church. When I was first in segregation I asked for and got a Bible so at least I could have something to read. I read through both testaments in full - that was interesting! On the other hand, in the jail where I spent most of my time, the Chaplain was one of the best people in the whole place, and someone many of us looked to for support for virtually any positive activity, even if it had nothing to do with religion. I'm still in touch with her, and I'm a completely unreligious person.

I give kudos to religious groups, like the Salvation Army, that are trying in a serious way to help guys in and out of jail. Yes, they have a religious message but they don't push it too hard; their first goal is to help you, not to convert you. But other religious groups are much less positive in their actions.

Of course if jails had a proper range of activities, such as education, there would be less need for religion and people would take it on for the right reasons. In Canadian federal prisons there is no education provided beyond high school completion, and that is outrageous, as noted by Yourself.

Good discussion thread!!
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Old 03-12-2017, 01:54 PM
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Goodness, I wasn't sure if this was even the right place to post this thread (and it still might not be)! But, it is generating an interesting discussion. I really appreciate hearing the perspectives of folks who have been incarcerated.

I'm an active person of faith, who is not Christian. I understand the value of a spiritual life and a supportive faith community. My friend in prison is not Christian, and is actively practicing his faith despite religious harassment from the administration. I find it problematic that adherence to a specific flavor of Christianity garners prisoners very material benefits in terms of housing, safety, food, access to family, work assignments, freedom of movement, educational opportunities, prison assignment and even parole and release decisions. Chaplains have immense power to grant privileges and to restrict resources available to other religious groups, and according to Erzen two thirds of current chaplains are affiliated with evangelical or Pentecostal denominations. The fact that so much programming is run by evangelical Christian organizations means that even those volunteers and leaders have influence over these kinds of decisions.

One of the passages in the book talks about a an annual "Day with Dad" available only to men participating in the Christian seminary program. "Local churches organized games and activities, and women volunteers filled plates with mammoth pieces of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, a roll, and apple or peach cobbler for dessert."

I'm sure my friend would love to spend a whole day with his kid in a relatively unconstrained setting. But only men participating in a Christian seminary program, who are selected by evangelical Christian volunteers, get to do that.

Plus if the only mental health counseling in some prisons is provided by these faith-based organizations, what does that mean, for example, for women prisoners -- an estimated 85% of whom have experienced physical or sexual violence? If the only counseling available to them comes through the lens of a strictly patriarchal theology that asserts unquestioned dominance by men over women?

I have not been incarcerated, so I can't speak to that experience. I don't want to be judgmental about the benefits that these programs have, or about anyone's individual religious beliefs. Everyone should have a right to practice their religion, but they shouldn't be either privileged by their religion, or discriminated against because it. This all seems very troubling to me.
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Old 03-12-2017, 03:42 PM
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My fiance (Wiccan) was forced to go through a program that used material from IBLP, a Christian cult group whose founder has since been linked to sexual assualt cases.

He grew up Christian and with the same material, so he knows it was the same group.

Later, in his current prison, they got a new warden who is a staunch supporter of IBLP and their principles and has taken away many rights they once had. The Wiccan group at his prison has been disbanded so now they can't even practice their religion.
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Old 03-12-2017, 05:40 PM
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There are definitely serious abuses perpetrated in the name of God in prison. The most disturbing to me was Burl Cain, the ex, but long time warden at Louisiana's Angola prison plantation. Inmates were kept in solitary confinement, some for multiple decades, and the only path out was by converting to his fundamentalist Christian church/cult. Here's a link to a Mother Jones article.
http://www.motherjones.com/politics/...-angola-prison

and a New Orleans Advocate article about how he was finally removed as warden, but only after 21 years there, and numerous ethical scandals.
http://www.theadvocate.com/new_orlea...81682ab19.html
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Old 03-14-2017, 09:25 AM
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Alternet has an extended excerpt from the book:
Exposing the Audacious Project to Make Christian Converts in America's Prisons
With a higher incarceration rate than anywhere in the world, the United States prison system has placed its faith in Christian prisoners.

http://www.alternet.org/books/exposi...ericas-prisons
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