Conversion and the Rehabilitation of the Penal System

A Theological Rereading of Criminal Justice

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Andrew Skotnicki
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , April
     216 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In this study that stands out from the plethora of publications on contemporary penal systems, Conversion and the Rehabilitation of the Penal System, Andrew Skotnicki argues convincingly from a Christian perspective that following the decline of the rehabilitative ideal in the 1970s, modern societies need to regain an understanding of conversion, which is the “only effective justification for locking up people against their will” (12). According to Skotnicki, the criminal justice system should be reformed by eliminating punishment and policies based on the erroneous notion of deterrence and the idea of rehabilitation, which result in the incapacitation of the urban poor. He recommends a return to conversion as the original justification for the practice of confinement.

While it is correct, according to Skotnicki, for theological studies on criminal justice to focus on the shortcomings of contemporary prisons—for instance, the unprecedented number of people in penal detention, the disproportionate racial demographics of the prison population, and the “over-reliance on retribution as an institutional philosophy”— he believes it is also important to “address the fragile moral and philosophical assumptions underlying current penal systems” (139n1). He examines the institutional failure “in terms of the rupture with and professed disregard for the theological sources that provided the basis for the practice of confinement as a social strategy” (139n1).

Purgatory serves as the model for (early) modern institutionalized prisons. Skotnicki believes that the link between imprisonment and conversion imbues all modern forms of confinement with an eschatological dimension, even in their apparently secular form. Thus Skotnicki argues that a theological approach is the only appropriate treatment of the subject. He lays out his argument in five chapters on penal ideology (chapter 1), the legitimacy of punishment (chapter 2), conversion as inclusion (chapter 3), rehabilitation (chapter 4), and conversion of the penal system through rehabilitation (chapter 5). Skotnicki concludes by reminding his readers that a conversion-based reform of the penal system also involves social engagement and practical theology. He emphasizes that the problem of the “correctional empire” (135) of contemporary societies cannot be solved by reform, but only by a revolution; drawing on Alfred North Whitehead, he insists that the most pressing issue concerns the tension between science and religion (133–34). Ultimately, the present penal systems of the modern (Western) world exhibit profoundly religious motivations beneath a veneer of secular science, and current correctional practice is no less than an enormous ethical failure.

This short book is a pleasure to read, especially for the panache of the language and arguments. Insightful is the way Skotnicki’s theological perspective leads the discourse on carceral systems back to its roots in religious notions and arguments. Yet perhaps the greatest strength of the book is the courage and tenacity with which Skotnicki presents his arguments. He insists that penal language is revelatory insofar as terms such as “rehabilitation” are “so hopelessly dualistic, judgmental, and in service to social ends inimical to whatever humane goals they hope to achieve that they should be stricken from the penal lexicon” (1). He makes clear that the human spirit is ineradicably wedded to ideas and practices of retribution and deterrence, though both are ineffective in reducing pain and suffering. Skotnicki’s concluding remarks summarize this thought aptly: “Everything in the nature of the ones who have acted cruelly is seeking participation, integration, and an honest confrontation with the pain they feel and the pain they have caused” (137). Skotnicki’s study has the great merit of introducing scholars of the field of prison studies to its theological import.

It would have been helpful had Skotnicki given more context to his argument and enriched it with concrete examples from his own experience. He could have also made greater reference to other relevant subjects, for example, the societal and theological implications of what has become known as the “prison-industrial complex,” the function of torture, creativity and forms of religiosity in confinement, and the roles of different denominations in prison regimes, politics, and missions. The student of theology may have wished for a more nuanced treatment of sacrifice (48) and a more detailed account of the nexus between carceral empires and the eschatological dearth of Western societies, the role of non-Christian faiths and the role of imprisonment in the Bible.

These omissions are made more problematic by the fact that Skotnicki uses outdated sources and thus paints a skewed picture of Puritanism, linking retributivism to Protestantism and the original vision of conversion to the Catholic church’s “invention” of purgatory (45, 160n71, 161n72–75). Despite his critique of aspects of Catholicism (3), his work takes on an unabashed apologetic tone. This is all the more problematic given that the birth of the modern prison in North America coincided with the rise of Catholicism since the 18th century.

Current penal systems are the ultimate proof that, all effort at prison reform notwithstanding, current practices are far from the inclusive ethical vision of Christ (3). Skotnicki’s cleverly titled study includes extensive endnotes that place his work in context with previous research (and serve as an annotated bibliography, 139–90) and his work includes a short index (191–92, unfortunately not of biblical passages). The author makes a convincing case for the fact that the religious origins and future of current penal systems are an important topic for contemporary theology. For this reason alone Conversion and the Rehabilitation of the Penal System is a must-read.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Philipp Reisner is Visiting Lecturer in American studies at Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf and Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz, Germany.

Date of Review: 
November 30, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Andrew Skotnicki is Instructor of Theological and Criminological Ethics at Manhattan College in New York City.


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