Prison and Religion

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Prison and Religion

Historically, religion in the United States has played a significant role in the reform efforts to rehabilitate criminals, largely because the deeply embedded Judeo-Christian concepts of repentance and redemption suggest that people are capable of moral regeneration. The normative prescriptions for restoration of the human spirit are taught routinely in churches and synagogues. It is no wonder, then, that religious institutions have come to acquire a certain "ownership" of the problem of deviance and its moral remedy. Concerted rehabilitation efforts have been funneled into a wide variety of prison ministries. There are literally thousands of small, independent churches and religious organizations that operate prison ministries today. Services provided by prison ministries range from the distribution of Bibles and other religious materials to more comprehensive programs such as family counseling, legal aid, and victim-offender reconciliation/mediation.

In the past twenty years, one of the most promising developments in prison ministry is the emergence of the restorative justice model. Restorative justice is a process wherein stakeholder parties in an offense come together to resolve the problems and injustices imposed on victims. It is designed to repair harm, to achieve an agreement regarding compensation to the victim by the offender, and to involve the wider community in reducing crime outside the traditional criminal justice system. It recognizes the significance of community involvement in responding to crime rather than leaving the task to government alone. The restorative justice movement did not begin as an initiative of religious organizations, but it has been effectively harnessed and implemented by prison ministries that recognized consistencies with biblical principles of restitution. A leading advocate of restorative justice is Prison Fellowship International (PFI), founded by former Watergate figure Charles Colson. Colson founded Prison Fellowship (PF) in 1976 after his release from prison. Colson's own religious conversion and his firsthand observation of prison life led him to devote his energies and resources to working with prisoners to aid rehabilitation. In 1979 representatives from Prison Fellowship groups that had arisen in other countries formed the international organization PFI, which now is the largest and most extensive association of prison ministries in the world. PFI holds a nongovernmental organization (NGO) consultant status with the U.N. Economic and Social Council and is active in the U.N. Alliance of NGOs on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice. Restorative justice is the principal thrust of PFI. The success of PFI's restorative justice programs has opened doors to correctional institutions around the country. Prison officials faced with overcrowding and lack of resources are often forced to warehouse inmates. Little rehabilitation is achieved under these conditions, and predictably, recidivism rates are high. Prison ministries that promote restorative justice programs such as PFI have independent financial resources and personnel, offer systematic and effective rehabilitation opportunities for prisoners who are willing to cooperate, and infuse compassion into inhospitable or sometimes hostile correctional environments.

Restorative justice programs include one or more of the following: (1) victim-offender reconciliation/mediation, (2) family group conferencing, (3) victim-offender panels, (4) victim assistance, and (5) prisoner assistance. Victim-offender reconciliation programs used trained mediators to bring victims and offenders together to discuss the crime and mutually work toward rectifying the harm suffered by the victims. This may involve restitution in the form of payment and monitoring schedules, in-kind services, or community service. PFI and other prison ministries train mediators to work with the courts and correctional institutions. Family group conferencing is similar to victim-offender reconciliation/mediation but incorporates participation of families, community support groups or religious organizations, social welfare officials, police, and attorneys in addition to the victim and the offender. Victim-offender panels are comprised of unrelated victims and offenders linked by a common type of crime, but not the particular crime directly involving the victim and the offender. In victim-offender or victim-impact panels, the offender must confront the pain of victims other than his or her own but who share the same victimization. Victim assistance programs provide services to victims as they recover from the crime and the arduous process of prosecution. Here prison ministries try to help victims from being revictimized, by the system. For example, prosecutors may decide to reduce charges and plea bargain a case even though the victim or the victim's family finds the decision unacceptable. Victims often find that they have no voice in the system. Neighbors Who Care (NWC) is one example of a national church-based organization that aids victims by linking them to support mechanisms and services provided by the church in the early days following victimization. Prisoner assistance programs provide ways for prisoners to make the transition from institutionalization to the external community. Incarceration can foster antisocial values and antisocial behavior, making reintegration into society difficult. The Detroit-based Transition of Prisoners (TOP) is a church-affiliated, nonresidential aftercare program providing accountability for former prisoners. TOP also enlists the aid of businesses, social service agencies, and community resources to facilitate reintegration for the ex-prisoner and his or her family.

Preliminary evaluation research on restorative justice programs has been encouraging. One study of juvenile corrections found that restitution agreements were reached in 95 percent of cases in family group conferencing and that completion of agreements was reached in 90 percent of cases without police follow-up. Offenders tended to show greater empathy with victims, demonstrated marked improvements in behavior toward families and police, and discovered stronger support networks. One study of victim-offender panels found that the recidivism rate was as much as five times greater for nonparticipants than for participants. Evaluation of the TOP program found that the recidivism rate for participants was only 9 percent, compared to the anticipated rate of approximately 50 percent based on risk-assessment scores. Courts and correctional institutions evidence an increasing willingness to work with religious organizations utilizing restorative justice programs at a time when incarceration rates have never been higher.

See alsoColson, Charles W.; Healing; Human Rights; Ministry; Pastoral Counseling; Practice.


Burnside, Jonathon, and Nicola Baker. RelationalJustice: Repairing the Breach. 1994.

Galaway, Burt, and Joe Hudson. CriminalJustice,Restitution and Reconciliation. 1990.

Van Ness, Daniel, and Karen Heetderks Strong. Restoring Justice. 1997.

Stuart Wright