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Makeover of the Heart Behind Bars: The Roles of Prison Ministries and Faith in Our Justice System

A Q&A with Tanya Erzen

PenitentiaryHappy publication to professor of religion and gender studies Tanya Erzen and her book God in Captivity: The Rise of Faith-Based Prison Ministries in the Age of Mass Incarceration! God in Captivity is an eye-opening account of how and why evangelical Christian ministries are flourishing in prisons across the United States. Evangelical groups have over twenty-thousand volunteers who oversee programs in 334 US prisons, jails, and detention centers, and forty-one 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. The prison seminary programs have taken the place of secular state and federal programs that have been eliminated by funding cuts. Erzen gained inside access to many of these programs, spending time with prisoners, wardens, and members of faith-based ministries in six states, at both male and female penitentiaries, to better understand how these ministries and the people who live in prison grapple with the meaning of punishment and redemption.

In this Q&A with Beacon Broadside editor Christian Coleman, Erzen tells us about her inspiration for writing the book; the dual role faith-based programs play in serving the punitive regime of prison while providing prisoners a lifeline for self-transformation and dignity; and the potential of these programs to promote the ethical grounds for questioning our country’s concept of imprisonment.

Christian Coleman: Tell us about what led you to explore why evangelical Christian ministries are flourishing in prisons across the United States.

Tanya Erzen: I taught a college course on women and citizenship in US History in a women’s prison in 2003 in New York City, Bayview Correctional Center. The prison has since closed and will house a women’s organization that works on global women’s issues. I noticed that during that time, the majority of people I saw coming into the prison, aside from family members and loved ones of those incarcerated, were religious volunteers, and I became curious about the presence of religious groups inside. It was around that time that a colleague sent me an article about Florida transforming its state prisons into faith-based character institutions. Since I write about evangelicalism and religion in general, I wanted to explore how people in prison experience the presence of so many religious groups.  

CC: What was it like speaking with the inmates you interviewed for the book?

TE: As a director of a college program in prison, I am around people in prison all the time. However, I’ve known the women I work with in Washington state for years, whereas I didn’t have that history with many of the men and women I talked to in Louisiana, Texas, and elsewhere. People are eager to tell their stories, but they are always aware that we are in a prison where the ability to speak with complete freedom is circumscribed. I was fortunate to get to know many people who had been in Angola prison for decades and were now out, and they were an invaluable source of information about what life was like there. I was also always aware that I wanted to tell people’s stories and capture the complexities of how they experience incarceration and faith in prison, and to give them space to express this in their own words, which is why I use very long quotes in the books.

CC: As you explain in God in Captivity, faith-based ministries actually support imprisonment rather than addressing the system that perpetuates mass incarceration or why people ended up in prison in the first place. Why is this?

TE: The majority of faith-based ministries where I did my research are evangelical, Baptist, or generally nondenominational Christian. They are focused on evangelism or converting people. The volunteers’ and ministries’ primary reason for coming to prison was to save a person’s soul or to enable them to have what ministries call a “heart change.” One of the men who had spent twenty-eight years in Angola told me to ask the ministries a simple question: Why are you here and are you giving people the help they need or the help you think they need? Instead of asking broader questions about the people they serve, such as why are so many people serving life without the possibility of parole, they accept mass incarceration and often view it as a way to proselytize to a captive population. Their assumption is that grace and transformation are possible because punishment is ordained by God and manifested in incarceration. Discipline and redemption go hand in hand. The prison is necessary for redemption and change. The meaning of freedom is to live a life “with God” rather than to have autonomy outside of prison.

CC: If these faith-based programs aren’t working to establish a plan for re-entry into society, how do inmates conceive of any idea of freedom?

TE: One person in prison told me that when you’re serving twenty-five, fifty, or a life sentence, you build a life inside. People I met in prison were focused on how, as a student in the Baptist seminary or a member of a faith-based group, they believed freedom came from a relationship with God. One woman explained that she possesses an inner freedom from heart change. She belongs somewhere, and her life has purpose and value to others despite the length of her sentence and the state’s verdict that she is a murderer. She has found a way to justify her existence, not just to others but herself.

Despite the prospect of a life behind bars, Cynthia, another woman I interviewed, protests that becoming a Christian and finding God liberated her. “You’re not free until you have Christ in you. And I’m more free than I have ever been in my life.” On the outside, she wouldn’t have been a missionary, college student, counselor, mother to many, and leader. Cynthia claims she is free, loved by God and her sisters in the ministry even in a space of punishment. She feels, then, that her mind is outside the punishment regime of the prison, while still her body is still captured inside it. She makes her own time even if she is denied the space and place of freedom. There is comfort in her sense of certainty, in a closed belief system in which doubt plays no part. Even so, she still realizes that it is a circumscribed freedom. She said, “I thank God every day that I came to prison. Do I still want to come home? Yes. God gives us a second chance and third chance and a fourth chance. It doesn’t matter if you find God in prison or if you find Him in a church on the outside. I think He is building an army inside here. And these walls are going to fall down. And that army is going to go out.”

CC: Inmates serving life sentences can get caught in the existential dragnet of prison life and endless captivity. One outstanding part of the first chapter is the description of the prisoners in Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women “goose-picking” already shorn grass with their hands simply for the sake of having something to do. What are some of the benefits of these programs?

TE: Even if faith-based ministries understand their work within an individualistic notion of conversion that focuses on reforming the soul, people inside forge networks and community through participation in faith-based groups, if they are Christian. Within the prison, they provide a sense of belonging, kinship, and new identities for prisoners. Being part of a ministry also means having a connection with outside volunteers, especially for the many people who no longer have contact with family and friends after decades in prison. Given the options of captivity versus religious redemption, most prisoners choose the latter, which is evident in the large numbers who apply for the faith prisons and programs. Men and women have complex relationships to the faith-based programs and articulate their religious identities and practices as transformative in various ways. Some spoke of how a religious or spiritual identity could alleviate the anonymity and de-personalization of the prison.

They claimed that religious affiliation offered an alternative social identity that removes them from the authority of the state and places them figuratively under the dominion of a supreme being. Many prisoners spoke of faith metaphorically restoring their sense of freedom and dignity. The ministries provide some of the only programming and structure within prisons, and the only option for community, self-transformation, or education in the desolate space of prison, and provide solace for those serving life or long sentences.

CC: One of the reasons why faith-based volunteers and ministries are able to flourish in prisons is because they save the punishment industry money. What does this mean now that the federal government isn’t going to phase out its contracts with private prisons?

TE: The rationale for private prisons is to continue to fill beds, because that is what keeps them profitable. In this situation, there is no motivation for rehabilitation programs to keep people out of prison. A state or federal prison offers counseling, education, and some programs even if they are performed by outside volunteers like faith-based groups. Private prisons don’t have to allow outsiders in the prison, and having outside people be able to speak to people inside and view what it’s like in the prison is essential for accountability. In private prisons, you may not even have a faith-based presence, and that is frightening because we’re already seen the abuses and abysmal conditions of so many private prisons.

CC: With the knowledge that our country continues to incarcerate more people in proportion to our population than anywhere else in the world, what would you like readers to take away from your book?

TE: Faith-based groups could begin to imagine their role not as saviors of individuals but as providing the ethical grounds for questioning the way we punish in the United States. Christian theology, rather than emphasizing retribution and vengeance, could be harnessed to promote a movement that works to abolish prisons and talk about redemption in real ways. Why do people in the US serve the longest sentences? What do we do about violent crime? Elderly in prison?

Over two-hundred years ago, in many of the same states where faith-based prisons seek to transform men and women in prison, millions of African Americans were enslaved by landowners who professed to be Christians. Christians justified their ownership of slaves in reference to the Bible. For most abolitionist Christians, ending the slave trade and evangelizing non-Christians were complementary activities. Dynamic Evangelical movements like the Methodists and Baptists were at the forefront of British antislavery from the 1780s to the 1830s. Just as Christian slaveowners were converted to anti-slavery efforts, so might conservative churches involved in prison ministry begin to conceptualize their role in the prison as one of spreading faith and justice.


About Tanya Erzen 

Tanya Erzen is an associate professor of religion and gender studies at the University of Puget Sound and the executive director of the Freedom Education Project Puget Sound, a nonprofit that provides college education for incarcerated women. A former Soros Justice Media Fellow, she is the author of Straight to Jesus, Fanpire, and Zero Tolerance. Follow her on Twitter at @tanyaerzen and visit her website.