Confronting Christian Penal Charity: Neoliberalism and the Rebirth of Religious Penitentiaries.

AuthorHallett, Michael

This article addresses the rise of Christian seminary programs in US prisons as a function of penal regime change in late-modern corrections. The article documents the neoliberal roots of faith-based programming in US prisons, featuring increased reliance upon religious volunteerism as a structural charity in correctional budgeting. Federal revocation of Pell Grant eligibility for convicted felons in 1994 has produced a de facto monopoly of Christian educators promulgating an exclusively sectarian framing of offender rehabilitation. Although faith-based programming can offer effective counternarratives to punitive justice that dramatically improve the well-being of prisoners who freely volunteer, overreliance upon Christian instruction in US prisons fosters a coercively sectarian framing of rehabilitation and a newly privatized mechanism for inmate education.


When historians talk of the cultural forces which have influenced penal policy, the forces which they have in mind are most often religion and humanitarianism. (Garland 1990, 203)

Efforts to reduce taxpayer spending on prisons have featured expanded use of private for-profit corporations as well as increased use of voluntary service organizations, particularly faith-based programs seeking offenders' self-transformation (Hannah-Moffat 2000). In an effort to end the government monopoly on delivery of services in criminal justice, a new level of both market competition and structural charity has become an increasingly commonplace feature of correctional budgeting (see Hackworth 2012, 45-46; Hallett 2006; Tomczak 2016). In an as yet little-explored dimension of carceral devolution, the trend of privately funded Christian seminaries being planted in US prisons reflects a growing prominence of religious neoliberalism in US corrections (see Hackworth 2012, Hallett et al. 2016, Miller 2014). Due to widespread reliance by corrections officials upon faith-based charities to deliver cost-effective services to prisoners and ex-offenders, faith-based resources are increasingly the sole or best-resourced programs available for inmates (Erzen 2017, Hackworth 2012, Sullivan 2009, Tomczak 2016).

Federal revocation of Pell Grant eligibility for convicted felons in 1994 has produced a market opportunity for enrollment growth among Christian education service providers sponsoring collegiate degree programs inside US prisons, wherein public officials often simultaneously employ or endorse an exclusively sectarian framing of offender rehabilitation. (1) Seminaries frequently use their prison course offerings for fundraising and self-promotion purposes. In what is fast becoming a nationwide movement, Christian seminary programs are now operating in 17 states, often providing the only or largest tuition-assisted access to collegiate-level education available to prisoners at the institutions in which they are housed. This article offers the first broad and systematic exploration of collegiate-level religious education and penal regime change involving multiple US prison seminaries (for earlier research, see Duwe et al. 2015; Hallett et al. 2016, 2017,2019; Jang et al. 2017).

Penal Regime Change and the American Penitentiary

The first religiously inscribed penitentiary in the United States comprised a pod of experimental cells built within the confines of the Walnut Street Jail over two centuries ago. (2) Since then, religious volunteers have continuously been active in jails and prisons, more often than not finding themselves in conflict with prison administrators and often marginalized by wardens and chaplains (Graber 2013, Sundt & Cullen 1998). As Jennifer Graber (2013, 3) notes in her history of New York's Auburn Penitentiary, "the prison's first decades show that just as the nation began to reform its criminal justice system and build institutions for reformative incarceration, citizens had no clear sense of how religious actors might contribute to that process." Graber highlights the contested nature of religion at both Auburn and Sing Sing, another New York prison, amid persistent tension between officials and religious reformers.

Not only were religious volunteers often kept at bay by prison administrators, religionists themselves were in conflict over religious doctrine and over who among them should hold leadership positions in prison ministry. Although religiously motivated volunteerism in US prisons had the effect of lending religious legitimacy to penal regimes, it also failed to result in the reforms often advocated by religious practitioners. Religious volunteers, in fact, have generally had little influence over what religionists viewed as excessively punitive policies in early penitentiaries (i.e., use of the yoke and water torture). Although it persisted for reasons of access and piety, religious influence on US corrections throughout history has been greatly exaggerated:

In order to secure a place in the prison experiment, Protestants articulated a united front about religion's contribution to reformative incarceration. They argued that religion played a crucial role in inmate reformation and in guiding the development of penal institutions. If and when they were welcomed into prisons, however, they struggled. (Graber 2013, 5)

The Political Economy of New Religious Prisons: Neoliberalism and Mass Incarceration

Like David Rothman's parallel account of the Discovery of the Asylum in the USA, Ignatieff located the birth of the penitentiary in the search for a new form of social order in the early decades of the nineteenth century, following the breakdown of the traditional ties of localism, the growth of city populations, and the emergence of capitalist social relations.... Consequently, his account of the penitentiary's emergence places it firmly within a new logic of class relations and a corresponding new set of strategies and institutions for managing the poor. (Garland 1990, 125)

Although religious volunteers are often credited with the development of the early US penitentiary system, structural forces involving the rise of industrial capitalism better explain the penitentiary's haphazard evolution. According to Ignatieff (1977, 3), "a range of forces" including the collapse of "feudal retinues, enclosure and eviction of cottagers, and the steady pressure of population growth on a small and overstocked free labor market" brought about the rise of the penitentiary (see also Ignatieff 1981). Even to this day, understanding the spectrum of influences at work in penitentiaries requires a detailed examination of both penal philosophy and the specific regimes within individual institutions (site by site). With regard to religion itself, criminologist David Green (2013, 126) refers to the seminal work of Swidler and Melossi to warn against overemphasizing the impact religion had on the birth of the prison: "Echoing Swidler (1986), Melossi (2001, 403) rightly cautions that linkages between religious beliefs and penal policies should not be considered causally deterministic; instead, religious beliefs are components of 'conceptual and rhetorical toolkits' that shape penal orientations, often in inconsistent ways."

Insofar as Christian seminaries have recently come to dominate tuition-assisted collegiate educational opportunities in US corrections, the reinscription of prisons as an appropriate venue for immersive religious education corresponds with the rise of mass incarceration. (3) Faith-based voluntarism has become a contemporary staple of rehabilitative services in the United States, especially among jurisdictions striving to shrink government through expanded privatization and direct use of volunteer service organizations (Buck Willison et al. 2010, Hallett 2006, Hannah-Moffat 2000). As under-resourced prisons increasingly rely upon religious volunteerism for providing services to inmates, research on the impact of faith-based programming has not kept pace with the full range of emerging programs. As researchers at the Urban Institute recently put it, in the public sector of criminal justice

[r]esource-strapped policymakers and criminal justice practitioners are increasingly turning to the faith community to help meet the multiple needs of the roughly 700,000 individuals released annually from the nation's prisons. Although faith-based organizations have long served disadvantaged individuals, including prisoners, only a handful of studies have examined the effectiveness of faith-based efforts to improve prisoner reentry and reduce recidivism. Even fewer studies have attempted to identify the distinguishing characteristics of "faith-related" programs. (Buck Willison et al. 2010, 1)

Research on the impacts of faith-based programs in prisons must be prioritized. By implying that faith-based organizations offer better results than similar programs sponsored by nonsectarian organizations, proponents of faith-based programs rely upon claims of superior performance based on morality and caring--and the fact that these services are often delivered by volunteers at no cost. Religious volunteer organizations frequently offer unique resources to prisoners and prisons; however, their utilization inside prisons can have unintended legal consequences (Sullivan 2009). Due to growing reliance by prison officials on religious charity for inmate programming, religious volunteers increasingly find themselves to be the sole providers available for this marginalized population (Hackworth 2012). As part of the neoliberal shift away from welfare state spending on behalf of needy populations enacted under the charitable choice provisions authorized by President Bill Clinton, faith-based charities are now routinely identified as a fiscal and human capital resource for achieving both improved rehabilitation and cost-effective budgeting (Boden 2006; Degan & Teles 2012, 2014; Fields 2005; Hallett 2006). The 2001 legislation authorizing the nation's first and...

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