The Angola Prison Seminary: Effects of Faith-Based Ministry on Identity Transformation, Desistance, and Rehabilitation

Written by Michael Hallett, Joshua Hays, Byron Johnson, Sung Joon Jang, and Grant Duwe Reviewed By Brian J. Wright

When conservatives and liberals talk about prison, they often seem to speak about two different things. Conservatives tend to think prison is a place to protect society and hold criminals accountable. Liberals, by contrast, generally see prison as a place that reveals social injustice, where allowances are not made for perceived social inequalities, disabilities, and disadvantages. This volume takes the liberal view, emphasizing “mass incarceration” and “draconian sentencing,” “focused disproportionately on black males” and “so many disadvantaged youth.”

The authors focus more keenly on prison religion and the impact faith-based programming has on identity transformation, desistance, and rehabilitation. Specifically, “This book explores Angola’s Christian seminary [via New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary] and the Inmate Minister Program at Louisiana State Penitentiary as a means of researching prison religion and its role in the lives of long-term inmates” (p. 27).

Criminologists and corrections scholars have filled bookcases with studies based upon sociology, psychology, psychiatry, anthropology, etc. The authors of this volume write, “Detailed attempts to study faith as a change agent in the lives of offenders, however, are surprisingly rare and amount to a substantial gap in the literature” (p. 51). Yet is it true we still don’t know the effects of faith and religion in corrections? Could the most commonly accepted propositions about faith and religion (e.g., religious conversion is too subjective to measure and faith is nothing more than a coping mechanism) in fact be clichés that obscure more than reveal?

The authors argue that real, deep-level change in self-identity through religious faith and religiously-motivated desistance has indeed eluded us. And an in-depth portrait of faith-based programming can fundamentally overturn the conventional wisdom about faith and religion in corrections.

“In-depth,” of course, is the key word here. Whereas most scholars have dismissed religion, this team of scholars redresses this tendency—and then some—with a book that confirms the significant role religion (in this case, “an explicitly evangelical biblical education” [p. 167]) plays in rehabilitating inmates. Indeed, they unpack correctional faith-based programming in far greater detail than previous authors. They show “the role of religion and religious institutions is especially critical in communities where crime and delinquency are most prevalent” (p. 202). The book’s subtitle expresses its most arresting contribution.

The authors conclude, “The transformation of Angola – from one of the bloodiest and most storied prisons in America to one with very little violence and innovative programs – has been attributed in part to the existence of a prison seminary launched in 1995” (p. 234). The book, in this respect, is well worth reading as a corrective to harsher judgments against religious practice as an observable solution to the problem of crime.

Although there is much to appreciate in this book, some blemishes inevitably remain. While the in-depth analysis is generally a virtue, the weak writing style tests even the most devoted readers. Furthermore, some key issues receive short shrift. For example, they offer only a handful of paragraphs on constitutional issues and one on suggested remedies. Even then, those sections merely summarize a 2011 journal article with no detailed evaluation or original contribution of their own. Granted, constitutional issues are not their primary focus. This inattention is still somewhat odd in a volume that highlights “the dismal state of American corrections” (p. 232), mentions that “prisons represent a social location in American culture wherein the ‘impossibility’ of separation of church and state reveals itself most sharply” (p. 222), and declares that “it is not possible to expect replication of the Angola model unless policy-makers are willing to modify existing legislation and policies” (p. 234).

After reading this book, it is not hard to understand the authors’ desire for more prison reform in relation to faith-based programming, “which appeals to conservatives’ desire to shrink government and get taxpayers out of the business of community building [and] which appeals to the left’s view that community building and social capital ultimately lower recidivism” (p. 229). The authors insist that both conservatives and liberals should admit the positive effect of faith-based programming, embrace its importance, and re-examine the value of religious practice for inmates, especially the prison seminary movement. Yet beyond that call—itself surely heretical in many Washington circles—the authors offer few specifics. Thus, the book suffers from a well-known weakness in the think-tank community: Arguing that policymakers should think more seriously about an issue does not constitute real policy.

Finally, one might question whether Angola was a good choice for such an endowed study. The authors are undoubtedly right that the prison is well-known. They produce sufficient evidence to suggest it is one of the most violent. Yet the persistent effort to underscore how exceptional it is hinders the potential impact of their project. According to the authors, Louisiana State Penitentiary is “America’s largest,” “a national outlier,” “a unique correctional environment,” “the only maximum-security prison in American that allows inmates to run their own churches,” etc. Why, then, pick such an anomaly and ultimately confess at the end of the book that the Angola model cannot be replicated elsewhere?

The main reason it cannot be duplicated, they argue, is because inmates at other institutions are not “given the freedom to serve others through the churches they attend” (p. 234). Perhaps therein lays a major misunderstanding. They seemly assume that inmates can only serve others through churches if they are officially labelled ministers, pastors, bishops, etc., and if the churches are strictly inmate-led. This is simply not true. Plenty of opportunities exist for inmates to lead by example, positively influence others, apply their faith-based training, develop leadership skills, etc., even without special titles or officiating a worship service. The same could be said for the majority of people in faith communities “on the outside.”

These quibbles aside, I hope and pray we will see more books like this one that sidestep the caricatures and gravitate toward facts. Such books would show the business of faith-based ministry is every bit as rehabilitating as the other fields of knowledge.

Brian J. Wright

Brian J. Wright
Ridley College
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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