There are over 2.1 million prisoners in U.S. jails and prisons. And, if trends continue, of the nearly 750,000 inmates who are released each year, two-thirds of them will be arrested again within three years and approximately half of these individuals will spend more time behind bars.
A June 2006 report from the National Prison Commission states “what happens inside jails and prisons does not stay inside jails and prisons.” The commission notes “disturbing evidence of individual assaults and patterns of violence” that spill out of those institutions when inmates more dangerous than when they were first imprisoned are released into communities.
These reports not only paint a dismal picture for lawbreakers, but naturally alarm the general public.
A June 7, 2006 ABC News online story quoted a prisoner, a repeat offender housed in Ellsworth Correctional Facility in Kansas, as saying, “I know prison is for punishment, but would you put a pit bull in a cage and poke him with a stick and let him out in a classroom full of kids? That’s the same thing you’re doing to inmates.”
Americans by and large are in favor of “rehabilitative services for [non-violent] prisoners as opposed to a punishment only system,” reports an April 2006 Zogby poll. Americans acknowledge that the penal system, as it exists today, is failing both prisoners and society as it creates more victims every year.
“Americans have looked at the 30-year experiment on getting tough with offenders and decided that it is no longer working,” said Barry Krisberg of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency in the news report. He said “offenders are returned home each year with few skills or support to keep them from going back to lives of crime.” In fact, inmates awaiting release from prison are more likely acquiring anti-social attitudes and skills than preparing to reengage society in a productive manner.
Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana, once was known as the bloodiest prison in the South. But today, the maximum-security prison, reportedly the biggest in the country, is a different place. Under the direction of warden Burl Cain, Angola is now a model for other corrections officials.
Cain, a Southern Baptist, has instituted a “model moral rehabilitation philosophy” in the prison. He says moral rehabilitation is really the only rehabilitation there is. The prison is even sending missionaries, graduates of the facility’s in-house Bible college overseen by New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, to other prisons in Louisiana.
There is more than anecdotal evidence that faith-programs reduce the likelihood that an inmate will return to prison. A 2003 University of Pennsylvania study demonstrated that prisoners who participated in a faith-based program developed by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and Prison Fellowship ministries were “significantly less likely” to be re-arrested or incarcerated.
Yet such programs have earned the ire of strict church-state separatists who allege the government is dabbling in the forbidden business of promoting one religion over another when it allows even a voluntary faith-based initiative a place in prison life.
A federal court judge ruled recently that a faith-based program in a Midwest prison was unconstitutional, calling it nothing more than “intensive religious indoctrination.”
There is no question that a sincere belief in a transcendent power who exercises authority over you and bears Truth with a capital “T” changes one’s life—for good. Rehabilitation programs that are based on this reality are bound to effect dramatic, long-lasting changes in the lives of inmates, especially when compared to traditional rehab programs that offer only short-term results.
While the experts struggle with the notion of prison reform, it is no surprise the most effective way to deal with the dismal state of American prisons is actually prisoner reformation.
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