New research published in quarterly justice question the long-term efficacy of religious programming in prisons. The study found no evidence that religious commitment in prison was associated with lower 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 doesn’t help) people as they prepare to return to the community,” said study author Iman Said, a doctoral candidate at State University from Pennsylvania.
“There is a lot of research on religious groups, but the evidence on whether they really work is more mixed. We wanted to take a really comprehensive approach to understanding how and why prisoners might turn to religion while in prison and whether or not their faith was helpful when 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 to May 2017. A subset of 51 participants completed a series of in-depth qualitative interviews. before and after his release from prison.
To establish trajectories of religious activity, 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. “Notably, the facility studied included an active roster of faith-based programs and services, prisoner-led religious groups, and a full-time chaplain,” the researchers explained. Based on their responses, inmates were classified as stably religious, increasingly religious, less religious, or stably non-religious.
In their qualitative interviews, participants described religion as a catalyst for self-reflection and tended to prefer individual practice to group study. “I learned a lot through my higher power,” one inmate told investigators. “I am a Christian, so for me it was praying to my Lord, praying to God, thanking Jesus a lot for the last few years to change a lot about myself. And to get here, I’m glad I prayed a lot about it because it’s taken a lot of patience to deal with some of the stuff here.”
But after controlling for demographic factors, criminal history, and substance use variables, Said and Davidson found no evidence that inmates’ religious backgrounds were associated with relapse or recidivism rates. In other words, stably religious and increasingly religious inmates were just as likely to be arrested or re-incarcerated as increasingly less religious and stably non-religious inmates.
“The main takeaway is that people in prison 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 prosocial, community-oriented future identity. This is an important benefit of religious programs; however, this focus on identity transformation often means that people are not connected to a religious group or any tangible resources to help them when they get out of prison.”
“Instead of using their religious association as a way to connect with community faith-based organizations that provide re-entry support, people often leave prison with little more than their faith and a desire to become a better person,” Said explained. . “This is simply not enough to help them succeed and despite their religiosity and genuine desire to change, many end up back in prison. Policymakers should work to develop practical relationships between religious groups within prison and religious organizations outside prison to ensure a smooth transition from identity-focused religious practice to tangible support of religious organizations.”
The researchers are interested in whether better connecting religious programs in prison with programs outside prison could help reduce recidivism.
“The next step in this research is to focus on religious organizations in the community,” Said explained. “What do you 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 religious groups in prison and religious groups outside of prison?”
The study, “A Mixed Method Assessment of the Role of Religion in Attrition and Reentry,” was authored by Iman Said and Kimberly M. Davidson.