Skip navigation

Exposing the Audacious Project to Make Christian Converts in America's Prisons

With a higher incarceration rate than anywhere in the world, the United States prison system has placed its faith in Christian prisoners.

by Tanya ErzenBeacon Press

It’s hard to focus on anything, much less the Book of Jeremiah, when the air presses against your skin like steam, and it’s not even 9 a.m. In Louisiana, a May morning like this portends a truly oppressive day, and for prisoners, one without the reprieve of shade, air-conditioning, or privacy. For the three women missing from the college class, sent to disciplinary segregation for violating one rule or another, the small room each is confined to twenty-three of twenty-four hours a day is a sweltering prison within a prison. The chapel classroom is an alternative to the “hole,” even with the cinder-block monotony of its walls disrupted only by a map of Jerusalem in the time of Jesus. Monica renews her focus. She has a final exam next week, and this is the professor’s review session. What are the symbolic acts in Jeremiah, the professor asks. Monica, scrutinizing her Bible on the battered table, must describe the meaning of the basket of figs and which prophet saved Jeremiah, if she is going to pass.

In the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women (LCIW), her home for fifteen years, Monica is one of twelve hundred women. Here in class, she is one of only twenty. The defining facts of her existence are numerical: forty-six years old, eight children and three grandchildren, Louisiana Department of Correction number 405636, a forty-seven-year sentence, a one-in-a-thousand chance of a pardon in a state where pardons are rarer than snow. Monica is also a student working on her college degree in Christian ministry. She’s sassy and weary. Others listen when she speaks in class. With her sharp cheekbones accentuated by hair piled high on her head, she exudes a flair that defies the drabness of her prison-issued blue shirt.

As Monica and others listen, the professor, Dr. Kristi Miller, drills them on potential final exam questions: “How long were they in captivity in chapter 25?” The class answers automatically, “Seventy-five years.” There are a lot of murmurs and sighs. Class discussion veers suddenly from exam prep into existential territory. Jeremiah is a book about being oppressed by a foreign power (the Babylonians) but also about how faith in God freed the Israelites. “God does not play with those who oppress others for their own gain. God takes seriously those who abuse their position of power,” Miller explained. The discussion becomes more animated, and theology suddenly seems sharply relevant. “Is the book of Jeremiah implying that punishment and suffering are necessary before freedom?” Monica asks. Captivity, according to this interpretation, is an inevitable prelude to freedom, and captivity is meaningful as long as one has faith. The chilling lesson resonates in this maximum-security prison where most students are lifers without even the possibility of parole, and freedom, in the absence of any real hope of release, can only be a state of mind.

Monica is grateful to be in school. There is no other way to obtain an associate’s degree or four-year bachelor’s degree in a Louisiana prison except through the Baptist seminary. For the past five years, I have directed a secular college program, almost weekly, in a maximum-security women’s prison. I visited the Louisiana program and other prisons to understand how faith-based groups are shaping the religious life of prison and as someone engaged in the field of higher education and incarceration. My dual role as a professor, writer, and program director enabled me to gain access to many prison programs that might otherwise have been closed to me.

Prison is about time, relentless and banal, and Monica has the relative privilege of spending her days in the chapel, in class, and in the computer lab or library. Monica and her classmates are a sea of pink, yellow, gray, and blue T-shirts and prison denim, as each woman quietly defies the prison garb regulations. For a moment, it seems they could be in an adult education class anywhere. Three women are assigned to each of the coveted laptop computers, and tensions surface over who gets to use them. Like harried college students, they fret about their papers, due in a few days. Monica is nonplussed. She’s been in prison for many years and has already graduated from culinary arts, tutored other women preparing to take the General Educational Development or GED test, and worked in the hospice program and infirmary. How difficult could it be to understand the symbolic acts of the book of Jeremiah?

When Monica completes her bachelor’s degree in Christian ministry as part of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s (NOBTS) first graduating class, she won’t return to the free world. She and her classmates will be sent forth to spread the word of God and, the seminary hopes, reduce violence throughout the vast state prison system. Monica also studies English composition, math, and world history, but the college degree is secondary to NOBTS’s ultimate purpose: widespread conversion. Monica and others will become emissaries of moral rehabilitation and, according to the seminary’s statement of purpose, will “evangelize their peers within all areas of the prison and other institutions of the Louisiana Department of Corrections.” The seminary’s mission is to win unbelievers to Jesus, and the prison system hopes to find a way to manage the vast numbers of people who fill its cells: the state of Louisiana has a higher incarceration rate than any country in the world. The prison system has placed its faith in Christian prisoners who will, it is hoped, spread moral reform and produce an acquiescence to their own captivity.

Today, all over the United States, with federal assistance and private volunteerist zeal, a quiet faith-based revolution is taking place in fits and starts in state and federal prisons from minimum to maximum security.

Christian prison ministries, religious volunteers, policymakers, conservative politicians, fiscal conservatives, private contractors, and evangelical and nondenominational Christians all attest to the power of faith to transform people in prison. Whereas prison authorities and outsiders have long viewed prisoners’ claims to religious conversion and transformation a ruse, a way of convincing others that they were reformed, supporters of ministry tout faith-based interventions in prison as the most effective form of rehabilitation. Once derided and trivialized by skeptical prison authorities, prison ministry is now a legitimate rehabilitative program.

The prison ministry or faith-based group and the prison dovetail neatly because they attend to both the spiritual and material aspects of life in prison. Pat Nolan is a longtime champion of prison ministry and leader of Prison Fellowship, one of the largest Christian prison ministries in the world. Nolan, who first convinced politicians like Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist to champion prison reform, says that Prison Fellowship will “help bring volunteers inside prisons to do the work the state just cannot afford to do on its own. And these volunteers will provide something that government employees cannot: love.”

The intervention of faith-based groups is based on the expectation that men and women in prison will become religiously redeemed, rather than simply rehabilitated subjects, by becoming conversant in or strengthening an already existing religious identity. Spiritually, faith-based groups argue that men and women in prison are not incorrigible criminals. Instead, prison ministries view people in prison as beings who always have the potential to be reformed. They operate on the principle that incarceration requires spiritual, not just political or economic, solutions. Their message is that, ultimately, God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit transforms the hearts of prisoners, and that such transformation requires unwavering faith in God’s power. The phrase “heart change” exemplifies the faith-based idea that religious belief will alter someone from the inside out. A transformed heart is a transformed prisoner who, in the view of prison ministries, will not return to prison. Thus, state and prison authorities desperate for a way to manage overcrowded prisons now support and sanction heart change.

“Faith,” at first glance, appears to be an innocuous or neutral term, but in prison ministry, it most often stands for a Protestant form of Christianity. In many states, nondenominational Protestant Christians make up more than 85 percent of the volunteers who enter the prison. These statistics include the vast numbers of religious volunteers, working under the supervision of primarily Christian chaplains, who, throughout the day, regularly conduct worship services, Bible studies, AA and addiction groups, trauma counseling, GED programs, anger management programs, and mental health assessments in prison chapels. But many groups and ministries call themselves faith-based or spiritual to avoid violating the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits government from favoring one religion over another.

The Baptist seminary in LCIW, where Monica resides, isn’t exceptional. There are prison seminary programs in Louisiana, Texas, California, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico, Tennessee, and West Virginia. According to the Office of Justice Programs, almost all US prison systems offer faith-based worship services, and 93 percent also offer prayer groups. In Florida, the state has created eleven “faith and character” or faith- and character-based institutions (FCBIs), entire prisons where religious volunteers administer classes, study groups, and educational programming. Evangelical groups like Prison Fellowship have over twenty thousand volunteers and oversee evangelical programs in 334 US prisons, jails, and detention centers. Prison Fellowship also operates a twenty-four-hour evangelical program in entire wings of state prisons. In the Federal Bureau of Prisons, 41 percent of prisons operate or are developing faith-based residential programs where prisoners sleep, work, and study in an area of the prison dedicated to adherence to religious ideals. Kairos Prison Ministry and Horizon Prison Initiative, two other evangelical prison ministries that have been active since the 1970s, run faith-based dorms and retreats in federal and state prisons. In Texas, Georgia, Louisiana, Illinois, West Virginia, and Mississippi, people in prison can receive a degree in Christian ministry from Baptist seminaries and are then sent out as missionaries to other prisons. Mainline or progressive Protestants rarely hold services or studies in prisons today. Conservative Protestants have the monopoly on prison ministry.

In a prison system that no longer offers even the pretense of rehabilitation, faith-based programs allow massive numbers of Christians to enter and proselytize to those desperate for a lifeline. To some extent, religious volunteers also reflect the religious landscape of the areas where prisons are located, and often the chaplain of the prison, another product of America’s intertwined history of prisons and faith, can forbid groups to meet if an outside volunteer cannot be found to run the group. Mujahid Farid, a former Muslim prisoner and activist who advocates for the release of aging men and women in prison, explained that a wide range of people are excluded from redemption. If you don’t profess to being a born-again Christian, you don’t receive help or consideration. In LCIW, for example, the chaplain knows of no self-identified Muslim prisoners. And when two Buddhist women, both from Vietnam, sought a faith-based group, they converted to Christianity.

The geographic reach of evangelicals in prison is a phenomenon of the past several decades, when mainly conservative churches began to view prisons as both a problem and a mission field. In many ways, the faith-based presence in the American prison system is a religious movement spurred by the belief that the conversion and salvation of the individual is also the salvation of the prison system itself. After 1970, the prison population skyrocketed 700 percent due to mandatory sentencing laws and drug legislation. At the same time, educational, vocational, and other programs were stripped from the system because of escalating costs. Just as prison terms across the country lengthened, most rehabilitative programs disappeared.

In the aftermath of this profound shift, legal scholar Jonathan Simon labels US prisons a mere “waste management system” for the poor and socially marginalized. Social geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore writes that mass incarceration is inextricable from the dismantling of systems of mass access to education, health care, social services, and jobs. The construction of prisons for mass incarceration resolved problems associated with surplus populations, surplus capital, and surplus state power. To explain this final point, Gilmore argues that, since the 1970s, “the state built itself by building prisons fashioned from surpluses that the newly developing political economy had not absorbed in other ways.”

The rise of post-1970s mass incarceration is not therefore merely about prisons per se, but more broadly about a transformation in the systems that define and distribute human value, including what precisely humans deserve, and who is accountable to provide this for them. Programs in prison are part of this equation. Several incarcerated women at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women in New York evaluated the effects of a college program there, writing in a coauthored article, “Rehabilitation looks like radical language now that punishment is the explicit project of incarceration.” New York and other states withdrew funding from prisons, while consigning astronomical numbers of people to exist inside them.

Today, the US incarceration rate of about seven hundred per one hundred thousand is the highest in the world and rivals the estimated rate for the Soviet Union at the height of the gulags in the 1950s. The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. According to the Sentencing Project, the foremost think tank on incarceration in the United States, one of nine people serving time in prisons, including those convicted as juveniles, are serving a life sentence. The racial gulfs are glaring: “Black Americans are incarcerated five times more than whites, and Latinos are nearly twice as likely to be incarcerated as whites.” The United States also spends more than $80 billion on prisons each year. These figures don’t take into account the cost, economic and personal, to the children and family members of those in prison, and how they are trapped in an ongoing cycle of generational absence and pain. Black children today are less likely to be raised by two parents than they were in slavery because of the high imprisonment rate of African American men and women.

Faith-based volunteers and ministries provide something that has always been the bottom line of the punishment industry in the United States: they save money. Faith-based programs have grown as a result of policy initiatives—particularly during George W. Bush’s presidency—but economic constraint helped to solidify the programs’ hold as a solution for prisons. With the evisceration of social services outside the prison, and the subsequent dismantling of mental health care and college education in the prison, the corps of free labor drawn from conservative, nondenominational, faith-based groups has filled the void created by budget cuts, stepping in to do the work of the state. As access to educational, vocational, and recreational programming that is secular, non-Christian, or even mainline Protestant has diminished, Christian ministries like Prison Fellowship, Kairos, and Horizons have flourished within American prisons. Most jails and state prisons now commonly support religious classes and groups as alternatives and replacements for traditional programs like job training and education. In the prison where boredom and lethargy reign, faith-based groups provide some of the only available programs. They frequently administer everything from trauma counseling to Bible studies, GED preparation, and mental health services in cash-strapped prisons.

Prisoners whose families can’t or won’t visit sometimes spend years without contact from outside, what men in Louisiana State Penitentiary, or Angola, refer to as “free people.” They find solace in religious volunteers who show up every week, in services and in the certitude of belief.

There is the love that someone like Pat Nolan professes religious volunteers bring and, then, there is money. Individual redemption and financial austerity have melded together at a time when even the president of the United States heralds reforming the prison system as a key priority. In prison, the evangelical belief that personal transformation is the cornerstone of change melds with social theories that emphasize individual freedom and personal responsibility. In free-market evangelicalism, transformation resides in the individual, not in the social body. Heart change and fiscal austerity have underpinned the bipartisan efforts at prison reform, such as the unlikely alliances between the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Koch Institute, funded by the conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch, and groups like Right on Crime, whose signatories hail from the upper echelon of the conservative wing of the Republican Party.

The faith-based ministries flock to prisons to convert, pray, teach, and proselytize, but they tend to neglect why people end up there in the first place. In the prison where I direct a college program, there are few wealthy people with college degrees. Whereas at the elite liberal arts school where I am a professor, my students come from primarily middle- and upper-class families. My prison students, 90 percent of whom report childhood abuse and sexual and domestic violence, do not have parents who went to college; they mainly grew up poor and contend daily with addictions and mental illness. Women represent the fastest-growing segment of the prison population in the United States. The United States has one-third of the world’s female prisoners. Initially, the War on Drugs disproportionately affected African American women. In recent years, the number of white and Latina women imprisoned for violent offenses and property offenses has increased substantially. The rising rates of low-income white women having contact with the criminal justice system are likely a consequence of the recent sharp deterioration in their health and social conditions.

When Monica, the NOBTS student, graduated from high school in Shreveport, Louisiana, she was smoking marijuana and within a few years became addicted to crack. “The only time I was clean was in jail,” she says. “And, the longest I stayed clean was six months. Idle time is the devil’s workshop. Same cycle, same cycle.” During these years, she gave birth to her first five children and struggled constantly to feed and care for them. On one occasion, she stole two pairs of jeans from JCPenney and was arrested for shoplifting. There were other shoplifting charges for clothing and food. She continued to have more children as she moved in and out of jail. In spring 2004, Monica and a friend drove to a Kroger grocery store in an old Chrysler with license plates pilfered from another car. Monica had a fake ID doctored to match the name on a stolen checkbook. She loaded up her shopping cart with four cans of Similac baby formula, two giant packages of diapers, T-shirts, and a purse for herself. When she realized the sympathetic cashier to whom she hoped to pass the bad check wasn’t working that day, she rolled the overflowing cart out the door. A Kroger employee chased her through the exit; she abandoned the cart and sprinted for the car, where her friend was waiting in the driver’s seat.

Accounts of what happened next vary. Monica says she plunged into the driver’s side and tussled with her friend behind the steering wheel. With the door ajar, the car jerked forward. Danny Maguire, a seventy-four-year-old Kroger employee, was stacking grocery carts. The Chrysler knocked him down, ran over both his legs, and kept zigzagging down the street. Employees followed and retrieved the plate number. At the hospital, doctors treated Maguire for a broken leg and various contusions, but that night he died of cardiorespiratory failure. He had a history of heart disease that was exacerbated by the collision, but the doctor listed Maguire’s death as homicide. Police found Monica within days. The courts deemed her a habitual offender and sentenced her to forty-seven years in prison because they took her juvenile crimes into account. (Louisiana is one of only two states that uses juvenile records as evidence that someone is a habitual offender and therefore deserves a life sentence.) Monica maintains she was not driving, despite conflicting witness testimony. The value of the merchandise in the abandoned cart was $270.

Should Monica be punished indefinitely? What does it mean if she says she has been redeemed? Are forty-seven years enough time, and enough time for what? The rationale for prison has morphed and overlapped through the centuries: to punish, to redeem, to avenge, to warehouse, to extract profit, and to reform. Prison officials, the public, reformers, and prisoners themselves have put forth conflicting ideas about the purpose of prisons.

Captivity has long been a resonant theme in American life. Caleb Smith, in his book on prisons in the American imagination, argues that the captivity narrative in which Native Americans held white English colonists in bondage can be understood as the first distinctly American genre and may have been an ideological source for the creation of the penitentiary.  The famous account from the colonial era of Mary Rowlandson, who, while held captive by Indians, took solace in her Christian faith, is one of the most well-known examples. Captivity invoked its inverse—liberty and freedom. As Toni Morrison writes in Playing in the Dark, the liberated American self emerged in contrast to an enslaved other. These zones of captivity are also present in contemporary war prisons and detention centers, where redemption is forgotten and endless incapacitation and captivity are the norm. Thus, captivity saturates the ideas of who is human, what is sovereignty, and whether the condition of unfreedom is permanent or contingent.

Evangelical Christians, Quakers, and Methodists built the first American penitentiaries in the late 1700s as alternatives to hanging people or confining them in stockades. These Christian reformers fervently believed that prisons were places where people would do penance for their crimes, and that prayer, solitude, and labor were the avenue to a reformed self. The architects of the prisons called them “penitentiaries” because they were convinced that prisons spurred individual penitence that might reshape prisoners’ inner lives. Therefore, from the very first American prisons, religious redemption has been uneasily but inextricably bound to punishment. A prison chaplain in the early 1800s noted gloomily, “Preaching a religion of brotherly love to convicts while you are treating them upon a basis of hatred is a discouraging performance.” How a person preaches love and solidarity within a hateful institution is the ongoing paradox of mass incarceration. Early reformers of the penitentiary considered themselves humanitarians and defined their institutions as a contrast to the horror of slave plantations. They represented the penitentiary as a space that prepared the prisoner for freedom, even if it was provoked by the lash and solitude.

Today, although they exist throughout the United States, faith-based prison programs are notably flourishing in the most notorious prisons in Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, and Kentucky. These states are the world leaders in imprisonment, with more than eleven hundred per one hundred thousand residents in prison or jail. Most of the prisons with Baptist seminaries or a significant faith-based presence are on the site of former slave plantations or convict-leasing farms, where bodies were once measured solely in profit and loss. The faith-based resurgence is strongest in these former sites of slavery and forced labor with the most violent histories of enslavement and white supremacy. In these places, the subjugation of black men and women reigned as a rationale. Penitence and redemption were immaterial.

Despite intermittent cycles of reform, the purpose of a prison has always been control; the ministries serve as agents of surveillance and authority and make it easier to maintain order in a prison. Prison ministries have become carceral churches that enable prison administrators to monitor vast numbers of men and women in overcrowded situations. For many faith-based volunteers, God is akin to a warden who works through the prison to reform individuals. Jonathan Burnside, a criminologist who has written about faith-based units, reflects on the premise that faith-based ministries bolster the prison. “By making prisons more human and punishment more humane, faith-based units promote ethicality and legitimacy,” he writes. “Faith-based units can be of great value—to keep faith in prison.” Burnside’s quote reflects the argument that prisons have a just purpose, that punishment is meaningful in some way, and that ministries work to legitimate the prison itself.

As prisons have become increasingly overcrowded, understaffed, and underfunded, faith-based groups perform an essential service in maintaining control and authority. The ministries embody the benefits of privatization for fiscal conservatives who argue that allowing faith-based groups free rein inside prison is fiscally efficient. If the state has jettisoned any financial commitment to rehabilitation and reform, prison ministries can fill the gap. Wilbert Rideau, an author and editor who spent forty-four years in Angola prison, told me, “Faith-based groups have been invented and foisted on the public by authorities so they appear to be doing something rather than just warehousing people. It’s window-dressing.”


Excerpted from God in Captivity: The Rise of Faith­-Based Prison Ministries in the Age of Mass Incarceration by Tanya Erzen (Beacon Press, 2017). This excerpt was originally published on AlterNet on March 14, 2017; reprinted with permission from the author.