The Angola Prison Seminary

Effects of Faith-Based Ministry on Identity Transformation, Desistance, and Rehabilitation

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Michael Hallett, Joshua Hays, Byron R. Johnson, Sung Joon Jang, Grant Duwe
  • New York, NY: 
    , August
     248 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


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.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Stephanie Gaskill is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
June 1, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael Hallett is professor in the department of criminology & criminal justice at the University of North Florida. His work has appeared in numerous books and journals including Punishment & Society, Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, Contemporary Justice Review, Critical Criminology and others. In 2006, Dr. Hallett received the Gandhi, King Ikeda Award from Morehouse College for his book Private Prisons in America: A Critical Race Perspective (University of Illinois Press). Dr. Hallett received the Outstanding Graduate Alumnus Award from his doctoral alma mater, Arizona State University, in 2007. He currently also serves as a Senior Research Fellow at Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion. Dr. Hallett has been principal investigator on grants from the US Department of Justice, Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, Jesse Ball DuPont Foundation and several other organizations.

Joshua Hays is research fellow at Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion. A graduate of Union University and of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University, he also serves as the co-editor for the proceedings of the Christianity in the Academy Conference.

Byron Johnson is distinguished professor of the social sciences at Baylor University. He is the founding director of the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion (ISR) as well as director of the Program on Prosocial Behavior. He is a leading authority on the scientific study of religion, the efficacy of faith-based organizations, and criminal justice. Recent publications have examined the impact of faith-based programs on recidivism reduction and prisoner reentry. Before joining the faculty at Baylor University, Johnson directed research centers at Vanderbilt University and the University of Pennsylvania. Professor Johnson recently completed a series of studies for the Department of Justice on the role of religion in prosocial youth behavior and has served as a member of the Coordinating Council for Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (Presidential Appointment). He has been project director/PI on many grants from private foundations as well as federal agencies including the Department of Justice, Department of Defense, U. S. Institute of Peace, Department of Labor, and the National Institutes of Health.

Sung Joon Jang is research professor of criminology and co-director of the program on prosocial behavior within Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion (ISR). Before joining Baylor University, Jang held appointments at Ohio State University and Louisiana State University. His research focuses on the effects of religion and spirituality as well as family, school, and peers on crime and delinquency. His research has been published in social scientific journals in the fields of sociology, criminology, psychology and social work. Dr. Jang is the founding President of the Korean Society of Criminology in America and has been active in many capacities in the American Society of Criminology.

Grant Duwe is director of research and evaluation for the Minnesota Department of Corrections. Dr. Duwe is the author of the book "Mass Murder in the United States: A History" (McFarland and Company, Inc.), and he has written more than 40 articles that have been published in peer-reviewed academic journals such as Criminology,Criminology and Public PolicyCriminal Justice and Behavior, and Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment. He is the 2014 recipient of the American Society of Criminology’s (Division on Corrections and Sentencing) Practitioner Research Award, and he was the 2013 recipient of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences’ Donal MacNamara Outstanding Publication Award for his evaluation of a prison reentry program published in Justice Quarterly.


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