The Angola Prison Seminary
Effects of Faith-Based Ministry on Identity Transformation, Desistance, and Rehabilitation
- ISBN: 9781138124264
- Published By: Routledge
- Published: August 2016
The Angola Prison Seminary is one of the most extensive studies to date arguing that religion is an effective means for reforming people in prison. The seminary in question is a satellite campus of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary located inside the Louisiana State Penitentiary, or Angola Prison. Shortly after he became warden in 1995, Burl Cain established this “Bible College” as the cornerstone of “moral rehabilitation,”his philosophy of reforming individuals by instilling morality through religious programming. Cain has long argued that the seminary transformed Angola from the bloodiest prison in the nation to the safest.
Several years ago, Michael Hallett and other researchers affiliated with the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion set out to evaluate this claim and challenge “academic skepticism regarding the role of religion in American corrections” (35). Focusing on individuals housed at Angola’s Main Prison, they analyzed the relationship between participants’ disciplinary records and their self-reported religiosity and identity formation. Hallett and his colleagues found that individuals who find purpose in life and construct narratives about rejecting previous criminal behavior and embracing a new, positive identity are less likely tocommit infractions. They are also more likely to be either Bible College graduates or members of one of Angola’s many congregations. The implication, then, is that the prison’s religious community does make the prison a safer, more orderly environment.
Hallett et al. directly acknowledge that studies like theirs often raise methodological concerns. They admit that their research is not immune from the common charge of selection bias. Bible College graduates and church attendees might already be disinclined to break the rules, making it difficult to attribute their behavior to religious programming in particular.
Yet the researchers do not as clearly address the limitations of how they connect religion and rehabilitation. In their survey, the Baylor team asked participantswhether they agreed or disagreed with statements like: “People in power use the criminal justice system to punish and control people like me” and “I have been treated unfairly by the criminal justice system” (135) Hallett et al. never explicitly state the role of these particular questions in their analysis. However, co-author Byron Johnson has previously indicated that other faith-based rehabilitation programs are successful in that their participants feel compelled to make recompense for their actions rather than condemning society for their plight (More God, Less Crime, 2011). Those who interpret incarceration as a systemic injustice seem to be automatically excluded from the ranks of the rehabilitated.
This restricted definition of rehabilitation reflects Hallett et al.’s reinterpretation of two major concepts in American religious history: the prophetic tradition and the Social Gospel.The prophetic tradition most often refers to the way African American Christians have interpreted the Bible (especially the writings of the prophets) to condemn the racism endemic in American society. Similarly, the Social Gospel presented the story of Jesus as a call for Christians to not only ameliorate human suffering through charity, but also to address the economic system that created poverty in the first place. The prophetic tradition and the Social Gospel, then, traditionally emphasize structural critique more than individual salvation.
However, in their study, the Baylor team invokes and redefines both the prophetic tradition and the Social Gospel to support a rehabilitative model based on individual confessions of guilt and conversion, not condemnation of society’s sins. Hallett and his colleagues proclaim a pro social gospel that identifies personal responsibility as the foundation of crime prevention and broader societal transformation. For them, past exemplars of the prophetic tradition include leaders of the Civil Rights era who found justification for their own social protest in the teachings of Jesus. Yet the researchers present a different understanding of the prophetic tradition in the present. Angola’s religious community, they say, is prophetic in that its members help each other repair what they call the “personal brokenness” that led them to prison. Condemning the criminal justice system itself is not prophetic, and in fact indicates resistance to rehabilitation.
In their study, Hallett et al. criticize scholars like Winnifred Sullivan for highlighting the ways in which religion has justified punitive policies to the exclusion of faith-based support for rehabilitation. Yet the Baylor team has posited a similarly one-dimensional understanding of religion by conflating religiosity with personal responsibility to the exclusion of collective culpability. This omission is all the more glaring since the researchers directly reference two Christian religious traditions that are strongly associated with systemic analysis and action.
Stephanie Gaskill is an Independent Scholar.Stephanie GaskillDate Of Review:June 1, 2018