Go to Jail and Get a Seminary Education?


Religious conversions can be pivotal in turning an inmate away from a life of crime, but only if the process of spiritual transformation continues outside the prison walls.

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The Darrington Unit is a maximum-security prison just thirty minutes south of Houston. The Darrington Prison resembles most other maximum-security prisons around the country, except for the fact that it now offers a four-year seminary behind the prison walls. On August 29, 2011, thirty-nine prisoners were formally installed as the first class of seminarians studying to become ministers under a new program that operates within the prison.

The nondenominational program is modeled after a similar program at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, more commonly referred to as Angola. Initiated by warden Burl Cain, the Angola Bible College has received considerable attention from both secular and sacred media outlets since its inception in 1995. The Darrington Project, made possible through private funding from the Heart of Texas Foundation, is an extension of the Fort Worth–based Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Brad Livingston, executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, hopes that the program will succeed and that new classes will follow each year. There are many reasons why religious people would think this is a good idea, but is there any empirical evidence that such a program might succeed? As it turns outs, there is.

Most of us have heard stories of a drug addict or alcoholic who overcomes his or her addiction as a result of a religious conversion. Likewise, there are many stories of criminals and prisoners who have experienced dramatic turnarounds as a result of a spiritual conversion. Testimonials of conversions have been the subject of books, movies, and documentaries, and they are readily accessible on the internet. From convicted murderers Ted Bundy and Karla Faye Tucker to countless lesser-known people, there are many examples one could mention in a discussion of dramatic religious conversions or experiences of spiritual transformation among those who find themselves incarcerated. Many of the ministries dedicated to working with prisoners, offenders, and drug addicts are based on the notion that a religious conversion is synonymous with reform or rehabilitation. Some of these faith-based groups believe that a conversion experience is not only the first step—it is the only step. If one accepts Jesus, then one’s needs have been met—not only from an eternal perspective, but also from a temporal one.

I do not believe that conversion experiences—no matter how dramatic—are the single answer to prisoner reform or, for that matter, a host of other crime-related problems (e.g., delinquency, violence, substance abuse, prisoner reentry, and aftercare). On the other hand, I do believe that “finding God” or becoming a born-again Christian can play a critically important role as a starting point in the process of long-term change and reform. In other words, religious conversions play an important role, but these conversions, in isolation, are insufficient in reforming offenders and bringing about lasting change. I would argue that the key to authentic behavioral change lies in an ongoing process of spiritual transformation. Further, it is the process of spiritual growth and development that makes it possible to sustain and build upon a conversion experience. Let me explain.

Becoming “born again” does not exempt a prisoner from facing numerous and formidable challenges following release from prison. Most ex-prisoners struggle to find stable employment, acceptable housing, adequate transportation, and supportive family members. Because of these and other reentry difficulties, it is only a matter of time before many ex-prisoners return to prison. My own observations are consistent with what little research is available on this subject: many inmates who experience religious conversions in prison are either unable or unwilling once released from prison to get connected to local congregations. Because reentry to society is so difficult, not connecting to a church is a recipe for disaster, effectively separating former prisoners from the support they need in order to live a law-abiding and productive life in the free world. Without these faith-based connections, ex-prisoners will not have a mentor to hold them accountable, and they will not have access to the vibrant networks of social support that exist in so many congregations. These networks, and the faith-motivated individuals within them, can touch each of the areas that are so problematic during prisoner reentry.

If the only difference between inmates who leave prison is that some are “born again” and others are not, it should come as no surprise that recidivism rates between these two groups would be comparable. In fact, this is exactly what I found when I tracked born-again prisoners and a comparable group of inmates who had not reported having a conversion experience. There was no difference in recidivism rates for these two groups following release from prison. I did not find that the conversion experience protected ex-prisoners from all manner of missteps once they were released from prison. If born-again prisoners are not the beneficiaries of structured instruction, mentoring, and support, they will most likely be rearrested and returned to prison in similar rates as their non-religious counterparts. These born-again ex-prisoners—new creations though they may be—are just as likely to return to prison, except that this time they will bring Jesus with them when they return.

I have interviewed hundreds of inmates over the years and many have served four or five previous prison sentences. When asked about their faith background, many have indicated they became a Christian during their first or second prison commitment. As many inmates have told me with great disappointment, they simply strayed from the truth and abandoned the commitments they made in prison. I am not trying to minimize the work of those who preach the gospel message in prisons, but unless other faith-based ministries on the outside of prisons are willing to do more intentional work with ex-prisoners, it will be difficult for new converts to transition successfully back to society. Consequently, I would argue that conversion experiences represent only the first step in a much longer journey. Religious conversion is not synonymous with spiritual transformation. The latter is an ongoing process that, unfortunately, often tends to stall once inmates leave prison.

Can we argue that religious conversions are therefore meaningless or that “jailhouse” religion is of little value? Let me explain why the answer is “no.” Although I am suggesting that religious conversions do not appear to affect recidivism, I am not arguing that religious conversions in prison are without value or that they will not stick. Here’s why: One of the most well-known delinquency studies of all time was conducted by Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck. The Gluecks published the classic book Unraveling Juvenile Delinquency in 1950, in which they described their findings after studying, among other things, 500 troubled boys raised in Boston who had already been involved in delinquent behavior and had been put into reform school. The Gluecks collected extensive records about the boys and tracked them through adolescence. Many years later, Robert Sampson and John Laub, two leading criminologists, discovered the original files from the Gluecks’ research and followed up with the original respondents to see how they were doing now that they were around 60 years of age. Sampson and Laub found that some of the troubled boys, as one might expect, ended up in trouble with the law for the rest of their lives. Others, however, lived very normal lives and had no legal problems. They found that the troubled kids who had straightened out experienced some sort of turning point or event that was pivotal in bringing them out of a criminal lifestyle or path, and into a more traditional and law-abiding pattern of behavior. These turning points, for example, could be getting a job, marriage, or becoming a parent. In other words, people can and do change. Just because a person starts out on the wrong track does not mean that he is destined to stay on the wrong track for the rest of his life.

Unfortunately, scholars have been reluctant to discuss how changes or turning points within the individual may lead to the formation of important and positive social bonds. In recent years, however, several scholars have acknowledged that changes in the individual must take place before that person is ready to develop ties and connections to social institutions. In other words, the individual must change if the bond is to form. Peggy Giordano and her colleagues call this kind of change “cognitive transformation.” For them, these cognitive transformations are essential if a person is to sustain a new way of life. They suggest that religion can be viewed not only as a source of external control over an individual’s conduct, but also as a catalyst for new definitions and a cognitive blueprint for how one is to proceed as a changed individual. This process of change is facilitated by faith, whether through an affiliation with a religious congregation, personal spiritual experiences, or both. This process makes possible the development of a new and more favorable identity to replace the old one associated with any or all of the following: failure, violence, abuse, addiction, heartbreak, and guilt.

This is why religious conversions are important. Religious experiences can be turning points in the lives of offenders. Becoming a born-again Christian may put into motion a sequence of events that could be essential to changing a person’s behavioral trajectory. The conversion itself can provide a bridge to other faith-motivated individuals and resources that can prove instrumental in having a tipping effect in a person’s life. These religious conversion experiences, if nurtured, can be the catalysts for spiritual transformation that develops over time. It is this process that can help offenders to build a new foundation and to start their lives over again. Stated differently, offenders get a chance to rewrite their own narrative, which can be a powerful and redemptive thing; it can give ex-prisoners the hope and purpose they need to start a new and pro-social life, while also helping them come to terms with the anti-social life they have left behind.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of prisoners participate in religious services and interact with faith-motivated volunteers and mentors. Many of these offenders have had religious conversions. In and of itself, this may not mean a great deal to criminologists, correctional practitioners, or policymakers. However, faith-based prison programs and seminaries like those at Darrington and Angola, especially if they are connected to faith-based reentry and aftercare programs, have the potential to build upon these religious conversions. Religious conversions should not be viewed cynically as “jailhouse religion,” but rather as the opportunity to connect these converts to volunteers and faith-based networks that can facilitate and nurture spiritual transformation.

Let me be clear: Simply relying only on faith-based prison programs to reform prisoners and reduce crime would be a misguided policy recommendation. However, there is a real need for faith-based organizations, governmental agencies, and other social service providers to think strategically about partnerships and mutual accountability in order to produce results that reduce recidivism and protect the public safety. Some secular individuals and groups will not admit or accept that religion has an important role to play in addressing social problems. At the same time, some religious people believe that converting inmates to Christianity is all that is necessary. It is this paradox that contributes to faith-based approaches remaining peripheral rather than central to our crime-fighting strategies.

Byron Johnson is Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences at Baylor University and author of More God, Less Crime: Why Faith Matters and How it Could Matter More (2011).

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