By Anne Windholz
God in Captivity: The Rise of Faith-Based Prison Ministries in the Age of Mass Incarceration. By Tanya Erzen. Boston: Beacon, 2017. 232 pp.
The Angola Prison Seminary: Effects of Faith-Based Ministry on Identity Transformation, Desistance, and Rehabilitation. By Michael Hallett, Joshua Hays, Byron Johnson, Sung Joon Jang, and Grant Duwe. Routledge Innovations in Corrections Series. New York: Routledge, 2017. 248 pp.
Perhaps like most chaplains, my knowledge of prison life is minimal. Back in the early 1970s, after a picnic at Royal Gorge near Canon City, my parents decided it might be interesting to take a tour of the Colorado State Penitentiary. I was around 10 years old, my siblings younger. I remember little except that the lidless toilets next to the cell beds appalled me, and our genial guide – a “bad guy” named Mullinex – flirted a lot with a pretty blond woman who was also taking the tour. (Some years later, he successfully escaped to Canada with another convict.) My mom regretted taking us to “such a place.”
In the late 1990s, my spouse and I were both professors at Augustana College (now University) in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He also taught classes in American literature and creative writing at the state penitentiary. Twenty years later, he still remembers relinquishing his belt and completely emptying his pockets before entering the old Victorian compound. He recalls the people imprisoned there as some of the most engaged students he has ever had: “They all had things to say, they were all eager to participate. And they were always polite.” He laughs a little sadly, remembering how they critiqued the protagonist of Richard Wright’s novel Native Son, offering spirited suggestions about “the mistakes he made as a criminal.”
Since entering chaplaincy, I have only twice ministered to hospitalized prisoners. But the experience left me curious. Is ministry to someone in prison substantially different from “free” adults? What does it mean to enter a locked space – and what difference does spiritual care make for a prisoner? With those questions in mind, I explored two recent studies of faith’s role in the penitentiary: God in Captivity by Tanya Erzen and The Angola Prison Seminary: Effects of Faith-based Ministry on Identity, Transformation, Desistance, and Rehabilitation by Michael Hallett et al.
Tanya Erzen, a professor of religion and gender studies who researches incarceration around the country, questions the assumption that religion in prison is an unalloyed good and stresses the need to scrutinize purpose. Starting from Quakers’ reforming focus in early 19th century, God in Captivity charts how rehabilitation has failed under mass incarceration. Cutting off Pell grants to for-profit penitentiaries in the 1990s encouraged administrators (despite separation of church and state) to embrace cheap “education” opportunities from largely Protestant volunteers. Often evangelization thinly disguised, such programs provided participants perks like larger cells and lighter work assignments. Religion, Erzen warns, easily becomes an “agent of control” – complicit in systemic carceral dehumanization – rather than what it claims to be: a means to authentic soul healing and “heart change.” She advocates for community-building interventions, such as Washington state’s The Women’s Village, where “[a]nyone can join, no matter who they are and what their crime, and although many of its leaders are Christian, the focus is not on the religion but on the work of giving meaning to daily life, a ministry on the ground.”
The Angola Prison Seminary is, as its title suggests, a more focused study of one faith-based ministry program. Angola (Louisiana State Penitentiary) is the largest prison in the world. At the request of Angola’s warden, Baptist Theological Seminary of New Orleans agreed to create an outreach degree program. Relying on volunteers and dedicated to forming “inmate ministers,” the seminary enrolls students of various religious persuasions, including Catholic and Muslim, and offers virtually the prison’s only means of earning college credit. The book’s five authors conclude that faith-based ministry emphasizing “relationship theology” lowers violence, improves “moral behavior,” and helps cover chaplaincy department deficits. Three of the five authors are from Baylor, a Baptist university.
Where Erzen is cautious about the impact of faith-based ministry, Hallett and his colleagues are more partial. That said, the rigorous research methodology undergirding their consensus provides an excellent model for chaplains interested in quantitative research and evidence-based ministry. The authors make a sturdy and sometimes eloquent case for how faith-based ministry has empowered Angola prisoners, helped them actualize some measure of self-determination, and find meaning. In a huge, violent prison where chaplaincy (and other services) are woefully understaffed, inmate ministers provide comfort to the sick, dying, mentally ill, and grieving.
Chaplains exploring vocation among the imprisoned will appreciate both books. A short review cannot do justice to their detailed, intellectually rich investigations of faith in America’s penal system, including observations about Catholics and the role of chaplaincy. Stylistically, readers will find God in Captivity more journalistic and anecdotal, The Angola Prison Seminary more crisply reasoned and copiously documented. Both books criticize for-profit incarceration, linking it to Angola’s roots in slavery and the endemic, systemic racism that continues to dog our country. Together these studies reaffirm what chaplaincy teaches us about justice, accompaniment, and forgiveness. And as for my questions? I found that inmate minister Paul Will’s insight (quoted in Angola) answered them all:
When you demand a behavior without setting a man free to love, you will fail. … When someone meets me, they are not meeting a program. They are meeting me, and I am meeting them. There is only one thing that is urgent – and that is to be a martyr and a witness to life found in the fabric of relationships. The urgency is to know that you’ve encountered that person in God’s timing, with at least a small dose of human love – that you source to God. Love work is the only work.
Anne Windholz, BCC, MDiv, PhD, is a chaplain in west suburban Chicago.