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Spirituality in Corrections

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Kimberley Garth-James
September 30, 2019

Paul wrote in Ephesians (2:16) that we are one body regardless of faith and that our hostility toward each other was put to death through Jesus We all have esteem needs. The aim of alternative accountability correctional systems—beyond addressing the problem of over-reliance on imprisonment—is to promote the reform of individual offenders. There is a spiritual aspect to reform, one example being certain sweat lodge ceremonies practiced by Native Americans that seek to reconcile the offender, the victim and the community. So, also modern prisons can improve outcomes by considering all three of these perspectives. The present discussion of spirituality in corrections focuses on four key issues:

  • Balancing the risk posed by offenders with the possibility of rehabilitation and the need to deliver justice to the community.
  • The tangible benefits of reform programs that make effective use of spirituality to support specific reform goals.
  • The need for cost-effective crime control and prevention strategies.
  • Specific aspects of spirituality services (e.g., pastoral ministries) that address the need for offenders to develop self-esteem, selflessness and a sense of responsibility toward family and society.

Everyone benefits when the corrections system releases producers rather than predators into our communities. In 2005 research, Letessa and Lowenkamp shed light on how the system can better achieve this outcome with an examination of hundreds of studies of criminal offenders. They identified strong at-risk factors, including antisocial attitudes, behaviors, values and beliefs, family issues and a lack of education and vocation skills. Some of these factors are fixed, such as having a criminal record or family members who are criminals. Others can be changed, for instance when an ex-offender pursues an education.

Other studies over the past quarter-century by such researchers as Andrews and Bonta’s work in Psychology of Criminal Conduct, and Gendreau’s research in Offender Rehabilitation: What We Know and What Needs to Be Done, on criminal conduct have drawn attention to the fact that individuals who are imprisoned tend to be minorities with psychological (esteem) issues, and otherwise marginalized within their societies. Indeed, there is no denying the ongoing media reports of implicit and explicit bias, racial and otherwise—unjust stops-and-frisk policies, shootings of unarmed civilians and so on. In practice, environmental and cognitive factors interact with societal norms in various ways to produce criminality, but a common factor among offenders is a deficit of both social learning and appreciation of the value of self.

Hannah-Moffat, in work from both 1999 and 2005, considered generations of risk/need technologies and proposed a fresh approach to penal strategies. Guided by the growing understanding of actuarial risks and the needs of specific prison populations (e.g., women), Moffat challenged what had been the prevailing political and administrative thinking. From this perspective, there is a clear need both to reconsider the definition of criminal behavior and to base reform on the moral welfare of offenders. Currently, reform is being driven by public scrutiny of merely warehousing offenders—a costly practice. Broader currents in politics with public-private ventures are drawing attention to the shortcomings of traditional views on work’s role in prisons, and also raising awareness of the importance of developing a variety of correctional support systems for successful reform efforts. The inmate security management model was already outdated when Hannah-Moffat discussed it in 1999 in terms of taking into account such factors as interruptions in correctional literacy programs, owing to administrative segregation. Clearly, institutional security and the personal safety of community must remain the priority, but there are always opportunities for reform on a personal level.

With specific reference to spirituality in reform efforts, Chen in 2006 and Galanter in 2007 each documented spirituality’s role in substance abuse recovery. As alluded to earlier, the issue is not a new one; in 2007, Graber documented the efforts of Protestant ministers to reform 18th- and 19th-century American penitentiaries with programs combining prayer and contemplative labor with corporal punishment.

Today’s spiritual recovery movement is helping offenders to draw on the insights of pastoral ministries that are skilled in helping prisoners cope and preparing them to re-enter society. In a 2012 study commissioned by the PEW Institute titled, Religion in prisons – A 50-State Survey of Prison Chaplains, some 73% (seven of ten) of chaplains are optimistic that religion helps to build esteem. With access to high-quality religious affiliated rehabilitation programs, religion can contribute to success inside the prison and during ex-offenders’ post-release back into the community. These services have the potential to promote selflessness and thereby to help break the cycle of crime. Activists might accordingly improve the prospects for those who are incarcerated by engaging with modern departments of corrections in pursuit of policies that combine concern for the overall well-being of the community with concern for the spiritual well-being of offenders.

Author: Dr. Garth-James, Associate Professor, Fulbright Specialist
Director, MPA Program and Center for Public Affairs-Sacramento
Azusa Pacific University * [email protected]


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