New research published in Justice Quarterly call into question the long-term effectiveness of religious programming in prisons. The study found no evidence that religious engagement in prison was associated with reduced recidivism among a group of inmates with substance abuse problems.
“My co-author and I have a shared interest in understanding how prison programming helps (or does not help) individuals as they prepare to return to the community,” said study author Iman Said, a PhD candidate at Penn State University.
“There is a lot of research on religious groups but the evidence as to whether they actually work is more mixed. We wanted to take a really comprehensive approach to understanding how and why prisoners might turn to religion while they are in prison and whether or not their faith was helpful as they returned to the community. We also wanted to understand how substance use disorders, which are unfortunately common among prison populations, influenced the effectiveness of religious practice.”
For their study, the researchers collected data from a sample of 174 male inmates in the substance abuse unit at a state prison in Pennsylvania from August 2016 through May 2017. A subset of 51 participants completed a series of in-depth qualitative interviews before and after their release from prison.
To establish trajectories of religious activity, the inmates were asked how often they participated in religious activities prior to their current prison stay and were repeatedly surveyed about their religious participation while in prison. “Of note, the facility studied included an active slate of faith-based programs, services, prisoner-led religious groups, and a full-time chaplain,” the researchers explained. Based on their responses, the inmates were classified as either stably religious, increasingly religious, decreasingly religious, or stably non-religious.
In their qualitative interviews, the participants described religion as a catalyst for self-reflection and tended to prefer individual practice over group study. “I learned a lot through my higher power,” one inmate told the researchers. “I’m a Christian so for me it was praying to my Lord, praying to God, thanking Jesus a lot over the last couple of years to change a lot of myself. And getting here, I’m glad I prayed for that a lot because it’s taken a lot of patience to deal with some of the things here.”
But after controlling for demographic factors, criminal history, and substance use variables, Said and Davidson found no evidence that the inmates’ religious trajectories were associated with relapse or recidivism rates. In other words, stably religious and increasingly religious inmates were just as likely as decreasingly religious and stably non-religious inmates to be rearrested or reincarcerated.
“The main takeaway is that individuals in prison most often turn to religion as a way to transform their identity and develop a new narrative about who they are,” Said told PsyPost. “Religion provides a set of tools that helps them come to terms with their past criminal behavior and envision a future identity that is pro-social and community oriented. This is an important benefit of religious programs; however, this focus on identity transformation often means that individuals aren’t connected to a religious group or any tangible resources that would help them when they get out of prison.”
“Rather than utilize their religious association as a way to get connected with community religious organizations that provide reentry support, individuals often leave prison with little but their faith and a desire to become a better person,” Said explained. “This just isn’t enough to help them succeed and so, despite their religiosity and their genuine desire to change, many end up back in prison. Policymakers should work to develop practical relationships between in-prison religious groups and outside-prison religious organizations to ensure a seamless transition from identity focused religious practice to tangible support from religious organizations.”
The researchers are interested in whether better connecting prison-based religious programs to out of prison programs could help to reduce recidivism.
“The next step in this research is to turn our focus to the community religious organizations,” Said explained. “What do they need to better support returning prisoners? What are they currently doing and what are they not doing? What is causing the lack of connection and transition between in-prison religious groups and out of prison religious groups?”
The study, “A Mixed Method Evaluation of the Role of Religion in Desistance and Reentry“, was authored by Iman Said and Kimberly M. Davidson.