God in Captivity

The Rise of Faith-Based Prison Ministries in the Age of Mass Incarceration

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Tanya Erzen
  • Boston, MA: 
    Beacon Press
    , March
     248 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


That the rapid explosion of the United States prison population has also seen the emergence and increased prominence of faith-based prison ministries is a striking coincidence that deserves more attention than it has received. At the same time, as the War on Drugs was initially accelerating, Chuck Colson was beginning his career as a public Evangelical leader and pioneer of faith-based prison ministry with the founding of Prison Fellowship. Tanya Erzen’s God in Captivity laudably takes up the important task of narrating the complex relationship between faith and mass incarceration.

Erzen, herself involved in a non-religious education program for prisoners, argues that faith-based prison ministries—which are predominately run by Evangelical Protestants—perpetuate and enable mass incarceration in a variety of ways. These programs tend to focus on spiritual transformation at the expense of interrogating the systemic forces of mass incarceration. They serve as an arm of the prison’s functions “of surveillance and authority and make it easier to maintain order in prison” (11). They also focus on the importance of punishment as a necessary step toward spiritual transformation, rather than promoting restorative alternatives. Erzen also points out ways in which conversion is subtly imposed, exposing this practice as a grant to special privileges in prison life. This book also contends that many ministries exhibit views on gender and sexuality that perpetuate systems of strict control and dysfunction while at the same time distracting from other, more pressing systemic issues. Although presented in a way that sometimes allows for unsupported insinuations, the book suggestively highlights several suspicious juxtapositions between religious faith and mass incarceration, even when there is no explicit connection traced. One cannot help but raise an eyebrow at the fact that some of the most extensive prison ministries exist in former Jim Crow and slave states—places where Protestantism served as the engine for these previous systems of racial subjugation—which now also happen to be the states with the highest, and most deeply racialized, incarceration rates.

Erzen’s book rests largely on the weaving together of individual prisoner stories, and case studies of particular ministries and prisons along with references to the history of punishment, faith, and subjugation in US. These narratives come out of extensive, first-hand observation of several prisons and ministry programs, as well as from numerous conversations with prisoners and volunteers. With this anecdotal mode however, many of Erzen’s broader claims come across somewhat shakily. It is not always clear if her overarching assessments truly reflect the whole of faith-based programs, or simply reveal the failures of one or two particular ministries; and she sometimes glosses over important counter-examples that call into question the broader claims. The book fails to mention, for example, the role that faith-based prison ministries—including Prison Fellowship—have had in promoting restorative justice practices as an alternative or supplement to incarceration. That prison ministries promote a “narrative of heart change” that represents pure “narcissism,” ignoring matters of reconciliation, restoration, and preceding socio-economic problems certainly has some truth to it, and is exemplified convincingly in some of these narratives, but it is not at all clear that this is a fair assessment of the whole (25). But, what the book loses in ability to sketch a compelling “big picture,” it gains by humanizing the complex interplay of prisoners, staff, ministry volunteers, and faith in striking and sympathetic ways.

As a whole, God in Captivity is of singular significance in that it offers one of the first comprehensive histories of faith-based prison ministries and their place in the larger framework of recent political and social history. The final chapter is itself a significant scholarly contribution. It narrates the recent rise of a conservative prison reform movement; one that has now grown highly bi-partisan, and the place of faith-based prison programs within that movement. While highlighting the ways in which this movement has advocated for helpful reforms, Erzen argues that the movement “lacks an analysis of the root causes for why we imprison” (176).

The deeply critical take on Evangelical Christianity and mass incarceration, at times, suggests a heavy-handed cynicism that threatens the work’s credibility. One particular attempt to highlight the secular prison program Erzen is personally involved in as a glowing counter-example to religious programs comes across poorly. Erzen ends, however, with a somewhat surprising optimism. Just as committed Christians eventually became a major force for the abolition of the slave trade and Jim Crow, Erzen is hopeful that minds can be changed about mass incarceration. She makes several compelling and very helpful, practical suggestions as to the ways in which Evangelicals can adapt their existing compassion for prisoners to address the systemic issues, concluding that “faith-based groups seem uniquely situated to join and lead this work, wherever it may lead” (186). This is indeed something to hope for. Such a redirection will likely require a more sympathetic and thorough—while still just as critical—engagement with Evangelical beliefs and practices, and a more detailed argumentation on specific points of connection between ministries and incarceration. As a whole, however, Erzen’s important work helpfully introduces the important category of religious belief and practice as a necessary aspect of understanding and untangling America’s incarceration epidemic. Such critical analysis is a vital task.

About the Reviewer(s): 

S. Kyle Johnson is a doctoral student in systematic theology at Boston College.

Date of Review: 
June 21, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Tanya Erzen is an associate professor of religion and gender studies at the University of Puget Sound and the executive director of the Freedom Education Project Puget Sound, a nonprofit that provides college education for incarcerated women. A former Soros Justice Media Fellow, she is the author of Straight to JesusFanpire, and Zero Tolerance.


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