Traditionally, religion played an extremely important role in the life of people. In fact, religions accompanied people through their life and often religion was very helpful for many people who searched for a new purpose in life. At the same time, in spite of the declared openness of numerous religions to all potential adepts, there was a category of people that used to be excluded from religious communities. These people were inmates who lost only their freedom, but also lost the possibility to practice the religion they get used to. In such a situation, the position of prisoners was apparently irrelevant to the democratic principles and civil rights and this is why, in the late 20th century, American inmates got the opportunity to practice religions in prison and they could be even converted into some religion while being in prison.
On the one hand, such an innovation in the life of inmates could guarantee the protection of their civil rights. Moreover, while introducing religion in prisons, it was possible to presuppose that various religions will help inmates, helping them finding the new way in their life, changing their behavior and lifestyle, their philosophy, and it could also contribute to their integration into the normal social life after the release from the prison. On the other hand, there were certain apprehensions concerning possible effects of the introduction of religions in prison because religion apparently had the uniting power and, therefore, could contribute to the formation of the new groups within prison population separated by their religious beliefs.
In general, the public did not perceive the introduction of religions in prison unanimously and discussions between ordinary citizens as well as specialist concerning this innovation and its effects had a significant public resonance.
History of prison religions
The introduction of religion in prisons dates back to 1987, when the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that inmates had the Constitutional right to protect their religious rights and beliefs and, therefore, gave them a legal opportunity for exercising their religions. In such a way, the decision of the Supreme Court was based on the Constitution of the US and, actually, it was justified because prisoners were deprived of their right to practice their religions in prison. It should be said that the decision was quite logical since the right of religion should be viewed as any other Constitutional right of an individual and it would apparently unjust to deprived inmates of this rights.
However, the introduction of religions in prison could be motivated not only legal but also psychological and social reasons that will be discussed later. At this necessary to underline that after the ruling of the Supreme Court of the US, inmates had started to use the opportunity to practice their religion while various religious organizations attempted to support their adepts in prisons and, what is more, they attempted to convert new adepts among prisoners. It should be said that among the major religious organizations that started their active work in prison were various Christian churches, which basically represented Protestantism, and Islamic organizations that attempted to support their adepts and convert new ones.
Gradually, the number of adepts in prisons grew and religious organizations started to develop their infrastructure in prisons making the religion more available to adepts. At the same time, it should be pointed out that the large number of inmates was converted into religions, while in the past their religious beliefs were uncertain (Levin, 127). In actuality, this trend remains quite strong and religion is quite popular in prisons.
In response to the growing role of religions in prisons, the US President, Bill Clinton, signed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, in 2000 (Stewart, 215). This Act contributed to the enlargement of religious practices of inmates in prison and protection of their rights to practice their religion even while they remained incarcerated. Basically, the Act protected religion rights of prisoners from oppression from the part of the administration of prisons. In such a way, religious rights of inmates were secured and enhanced that created the positive background for the further development of religions in prison.
Factors determining the introduction of prison religions
Basically, the formal reason for the introduction of religions in prison was the violation of Constitutional rights of prisoners. Obviously, it was purely formal reason for the introduction of religions since these rights was successfully violated for a considerable period of time. Nevertheless, the introduction of religions in prison after the decision of the Supreme Court marked the new stage in the development of prisons and, in a way, marked the introduction of the new strategy used the justice system to increase the effectiveness of the penitentiary system.
In fact, religions could contribute to the decrease of the risk of recidivism among offenders that were released from prison and who were adepts of some religion. Moreover, prison religions could change the lifestyle and behavior of inmates radically and make them more tolerant in relation to the society they live in. Basically, the introduction of religion could also have an important ideological role since religions could be use as the ideological foundation for the radical change of the internal world of prisoners.
To put it more precisely, Christianity and Islam, being the most widely spread religions in prisons, traditionally focused on the formation of the common cultural and religious identity of their adepts, which promoted the idea of the obedience and non-violation of the established social and cultural norms. In other words, religions could produce a positive impact on inmates through the promotion of religious teachings which reject anti-social behavior and crimes and views them as sinful.
Consequently, it is possible to speak about the great spiritual power of religion that could contribute consistently to the correction of prisoners and, eventually, meet the goal the justice often failed to achieve – to correct inmates, change their behavior radically and help them get integrated into the normal social life. In this respect, religions could be also very useful because, as a rule, religious organizations supported their adepts even after the release that was very important for inmates, who are practically excluded from the society and normal social life, at the moment (Dammer, 249). At any rate, the effectiveness of the existing programs targeting at the integration of former prisoners into the normal social life is very low, while religious organization provide former prisoners with an opportunity to feel that they are members of a religious community, they are not alone. What is probably the most important about the introduction of religions in prisons is the fact that religions give prisoners a purpose in their life. Often, the loss of sense and purpose in life produce a negative impact on inmates and stimulate their antisocial behavior both in prison and in post-prison life. In such a situation, religions can make the life of prisoners more meaningful.
At the same time, being in prison, people often live in the isolation. They may have difficulties in communication with other inmates, guards, etc. As a result, their psychological state is deteriorating for they feel their exclusiveness even in the prison. In such a situation, religions offer them communication. In fact, it is not communication with a priest, for instance, but it is also the spiritual communication with God that may be very helpful and it can assist to the better understanding of an inmate’s self (Brantingham and Brantingham, 156). In addition, inmates can find new people whom they can communicate to and who share similar religious views, who have similar values, and philosophy.
Thus, the introduction of religions, along with legal and civil rights reasons, had also significant social and psychological reasons. On the one hand, religions could facilitate the life of an inmate in prison and they could even change his/her personality and personal philosophy. On the other hand, religions could prepare inmates to the life in the society, in accordance with the socially accepted norms and rules and, what is more, religious organizations could support inmates even after the release from prison. In such a way, it is possible to estimate that, from the Functionalist point of view, religions in prison meet interests and needs of inmates as well as needs of society at large that apparently justifies their further development.
Risks of prison religions
In spite of the possible benefits of the introduction of religions in prison and its positive effects, there is also a number of risks and threats that religions in prison could impose on inmates, prisons and entire society. In the context of the recent growth of radicalism and terrorism, religions became a powerful tool used by various extremist movements to recruit new members and promote their ideas. In this respect, prisons could be viewed as an ideal place for the emergence of the religious radicalism and recruiting of members who have already experienced the protest and rebellion against the established social norms.
It is important to underline that often Islam is viewed as one of the religions that is the most susceptible to the negative impact of extremist ideas and radicalism. In fact, it is necessary to agree that many terrorist organizations that functions in the world have Islamic background. This is why Islam has being erroneously viewed as a potential threat to American society since 9/11 and prisons were also a part of this anti-Islamic movement (Reiman, 218). Naturally, the risk of radicalization of religious prisoners is higher than the radicalization of ordinary people that have never violated laws.
As a rule, the desperate position of inmates makes them victims of radical organizations which use religion to recruit new members. Potentially, a religious movement can become an alternative to the society, which rejected an inmate that makes prisoners ready to accept even the most radical ideas that may threaten their own life since they promote ideas of self-sacrifice.
At the same time, it should be said that religions in prison may represent a serious threat not only as a potential means of recruiting new radicals in some terrorist organizations, for instance, but they may be extremely dangerous since they contribute to the radicalization within prison (Abramsky, 2006). For instance, it is possible to name the World Church of the Creator, which formally states on the Christian ground, but, in actuality, this is an anti-Semitic and white supremacist organization.
Obviously, such religious organizations promote racial inequality and discrimination and justify the racial differentiation of people dividing them into superior and inferior racial groups. Naturally, such organizations and religious movements represent a serious threat to the stability within prison because under the impact of racist ideology inmates are more vulnerable to the attacks from the part of the most radical adepts of such religious movements as the World Church of the Creator, for instance, and other similar organizations.
However, such risks can be eliminated in a legal way, through the limitation or ban of such organizations. It is worth mentioning the fact that Federal Courts in California and Wisconsin which “have upheld the denial of Creativity newspapers to state prison inmates” (Levin 111). In such a way, it is obvious that such risks may be minimized.
Thus, taking into account all above mentioned, it is possible to conclude that the introduction of religions in prison, ruled by the Supreme Court of the US, was justified by civil rights of inmates. At the same time, its potential benefits could increase the effectiveness of the penitentiary and justice systems helping inmates change their lifestyle, behavior and facilitate their integration into the normal social life. On the other hand, there were and still remain certain risks, which are basically determined by the specific conditions of life in prison. Potentially, religions can lead to the radicalization of inmates and formation of antagonistic groups, but these risks are outweighed by the benefits religions brings since they meet the needs of inmates and society and help the former get included into the normal social life.
Abramsky, Sasha. Hard Time Blues: How Politics Built a Prison Nation. Thomas Dunne Books, 2002.
Brantingham, P. J. and Brantingham, P. L. Environmental Criminology. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 1991.
Levin, Brian. “Radical Religion in Prison.” Intelligence Report. Southern Poverty Law Center, Fall 2003.
Reiman, J. The Rich Get Richer and The Poor Get Prison. New York: Random House, 2006.
Stewart, G.W. The US Justice System. New York: Random House, 2003.
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