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The role of faith and service in criminal justice reform

Op-ed: Can religion cleanse your soul and your criminal tendencies?

Advocates for criminal justice reform now count among their ranks a very diverse group of leaders. Decision-makers from the political left, right, and center agree we need to revisit a host of issues that continue to trouble the criminal justice system. These include dramatic increases in drug use among teens, prison overcrowding, high recidivism rates and violent crime in cities like Baltimore and Chicago.

These and other crime problems are exacerbated by shrinking budgets. But recent research is providing evidence of several cost-effective approaches to criminal justice issues that should be given serious consideration by policy-makers.

We know adolescent addiction is a major public health problem. The overabundance of prescription medications, easy access to harder street drugs and the increasing use of marijuana make it easier than ever before for youth to use controlled substances. Such drug use — including alcohol consumption — curtails youth brain development; hinders academic performance; increases the risk and spread of infectious disease, injuries, and violence; contributes to risky sex and teenage pregnancy; and negatively affects life-course trajectories. Increased criminal activity, higher health care costs, and lost productivity are all by-products of such substance use. And the resulting cost to society is as much as $500 billion annually.

In several new publications, my co-authors and I looked into the relationships between social isolation and giving and receiving social support in Alcoholics Anonymous during treatment and at post-treatment outcomes for juvenile offenders. We also examined the relationships among a specific combination of "spiritual virtues" (helping others and the experience of divine love) and outcomes related to criminal involvement, sobriety and character development among adolescents. We assessed 195 adolescents with substance dependency court-referred to residential treatment at intake, discharge and six months post-treatment. We found that higher levels of service to others and experiencing divine love were linked to reduced recidivism, reduced relapse and greater character development. In addition, being connected to others — especially serving others — counters the social isolation that often drives addiction. In essence, we found that greater attention to spiritual virtues of faith and service improves treatment for youth involved with alcohol, drugs and certain forms of crime, and it does so at no cost to taxpayers.

Second, many prisons in America remain crowded, yet rehabilitation programs are often viewed as too expensive for already overburdened correctional budgets. What are we to do? The Louisiana State Penitentiary (a.k.a. Angola) is America's largest maximum-security prison, currently housing over 6,300 inmates in five separate complexes spread over 18,000 acres of a working prison farm.

For decades Angola was regarded as one of the most violent prisons in America. In 1995, Angola would become known for something far different: the establishment of a seminary program behind bars. Initiated by warden Burl Cain, the Angola Bible College, which is privately funded, focuses primarily on enrolling "lifers." A life sentence in Louisiana means natural life, without parole. More than 90 percent of the inmates sentenced to Angola will die there. The four-year program resembles the traditional seminary curriculum, and graduates of the seminary become practitioners in Angola's unique Inmate Minister program. These Inmate Ministers apply their education in service to their fellow inmates through Angola's 29 inmate-led congregations.

Our research team spent over three years conducting interviews and administering surveys, and months on site carrying out observational fieldwork. We discovered a prison far different from the notorious label of "America's Bloodiest Prison" it held for so many years. Instead, we found a unique and vibrant interaction between the prominent prison seminary and preexisting, inmate-led congregations.

Our research, published in a book last month, documents how various faith-based efforts — from hospice to grief counseling — bring light to this maximum security prison. Many prisoners, most serving life sentences, are able to find meaning, identity and redemption. By embracing religion and being afforded the opportunity to choose a better self, many Angola inmates transform their lives, come to care about others, and display their other-minded humanity on a daily basis. Many observers believe "nothing works" when it comes to prisoner rehabilitation, but our research indicates the opposite.

Inmate ministers assist others in finding meaning and purpose. These networks of support and activities create an institutional climate that manages to push back against the dehumanizing conditions that characterized Angola for many decades. Once known as the most violent prison in America, Angola has become an unlikely destination for delegations interested in innovative solutions to prison crowding and offender treatment. As a result, prison seminaries now exist in over a dozen states, and more are in development. It remains to be seen whether, as some have predicted, this privately funded innovation will become a full-fledged correctional movement.

Byron R. Johnson (Byron_Johnson@baylor.edu) is distinguished professor of the social sciences at Baylor University and co-author of "The Angola Prison Seminary: Effects of Faith-Based Ministry on Identity Transformation, Desistance, and Rehabilitation" (Routledge, 2016).

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