18-17 Segment 2: Religion in America’s Prisons

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When the first prisons were created years ago, they were found on religious beliefs, and many prisons today still embody religion as central to their operations. While inmates are not required to practice a religion, many of them have benefitted over time from religious programs that are provided in prison. Why were prisons found on religious beliefs? And, what is religion’s role in the prison system today?

Tanya Erzen, author of God In Captivity: The Rise of Faith-Based Prison Ministries in the Age of Mass Incarceration, explains that the first prisons in our country were created by religious reformers who thought that prisons would exhibit more tolerance than the current methods of sanctioning criminals. They hoped that through prayer and reflection criminals could be rehabilitated and would no longer commit crimes. Today, almost all prisons in the United States, state and federal, offer religious programs to their inmates. Erzen explains that in the event that a prison is unable to fund religious programs, they will provide other programs, such as drug addiction and education courses, that are likely to be taught by religious individuals. While the different programs provided do vary, inmates believe these groups have been particularly helpful for them because it allows them to receive an education and gives a sense of meaning to people with longer prison sentences. Prison can be dehumanizing, but providing inmates with religious programs that give them hope can make the daunting aspects of prison a little more bearable.

While these programs are helpful for many inmates, some do not believe that these programs are fair, particularly inmates who are not Christian. While these programs call themselves “faith-based,” most are based off of Christianity. Erzen talks about a prisoner who was Muslim that felt that these groups were his only option to receive an education, so he attended the groups despite having different religious views. Furthermore, these religious programs also endorse favoritism in prisons. Erzen explains another instance in which prisoners who attended church on Sunday were more likely to receive things they needed because the warden was religious. He would attend these services and the inmates could hand him slips of paper with a request, and they knew that by the end of the day this request was being processed. While these flaws within religious programs should be addressed, they do not deter from the overwhelming amount of good that they can create.


  • Tanya Erzen, author of God in Captivity: The Rise of Faith-Based Prison Ministries in the Age of Mass Incarceration

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