Seeking Redemption Behind Bars
On the History of Faith-Based Rehabilitation Alternatives
Our current model of prisons is a fairly modern invention without any analogies in world history. In the colonial era, most crimes were seen as sins, and imprisonment as we know it today was almost nonexistent. Early colonial towns in New England had populations of sometimes fewer than 1,000 inhabitants. Institutionalized punishment was too expensive, so when punishment occurred, it was swift and immediate. Transgressors were usually known members of the community, and almost everyone belonged to the church. Given this proximity to others, the punishment most befitting the crime was humiliation through time in stockades or banishment from the community. Being tarred and feathered was also a colonial punishment, and the women and men accused in the Salem witch trials of 1692 were hanged. Colonial models of law and justice were steeped in Calvinist doctrine. John Calvin, the 16th-century theologian, argued in Institutes of the Christian Religion that all humans were inherently wicked and sinful. Since humans were condemned from birth, the only function of punishment was deterrence. The pious might rejoice only in the more pronounced suffering of the wicked, as all were destined to suffer, and punishment by Calvin’s vengeful and fierce God was inevitable. Colonial laws also followed English criminal codes, which listed as many as 160 crimes as capital offenses. Only after the Revolutionary War did laws begin to shift away from the British model, as the states asserted independence. By the late 1700s, new criminal codes in the early republic abolished capital punishment, except for treason and premeditated murder.
In the American South, hangings, whippings, and burnings, often at the hands of lynch mobs, were commonplace brutalities for slaves and even those who might oppose slavery. Bodily torture and humiliation served in the absence of a formal code of law and justice. The newly constructed prisons of the early 1800s, with solitary cells and hard labor, were designed to replace brutal physical punishments, and they wed Calvinist ideas with concepts of individual liberty and optimism spurred by the Second Great Awakening, a Protestant religious revival movement. Quaker faith in the inherent divinity and, thus, goodness in each person was a drastic contrast to Calvinism’s pessimistic view of human nature. Prominent Quakers like Thomas Eddy and members of the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons conveyed their belief in the inner divine light carried by all human beings to the prisoner. Early religious reformers affirmed prisoners’ reformative potential and argued for a connection between democracy and humane punishment. Prisons might become prayer houses. Criminals were not born, Eddy and others argued; they are molded by social circumstances and could be reformed. The dimmed light might be reignited in the gloom of the modern penitentiary.
Quaker reformers believed that silence, prayer, discipline, and orderliness were methods for fostering a redeemed life in prison. Their theology of redemptive suffering emphasized an unbending faith that God approved of prison and worked through it to reach prisoners, an assumption that continues to resonate with faith-based ministries today. The logic of control emerged in the idea that prisoners’ progress in mercy and grace could be measured in their submission to the prison order. In obeying rules of silence and bodily order, prisoners showed their respect for civil authority and, further, their respect for God. Writing of the creation of prisons in France during the same period, philosopher Michel Foucault describes how prisons produced new forms of subjection and power because they governed the body and the soul: docility and obedience were the result of the highly regulated prison system. “Discipline produces subjected and practiced bodies, ‘docile’ bodies,” he writes. “Discipline increases the forces of the body (in economic terms of utility) and diminishes these same forces (in political terms of obedience).” To prison reformers in the early republic, criminals no longer stood for humanity’s collected depravity, as Calvin had preached, but represented a Christian’s opportunity to convert all sinful people and bolster the discipline of the prison.
In the early 1800s, solitary confinement emerged as a key strategy of control and redemption in Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia and Auburn State Prison in upstate New York. The principles of this new system were isolation and work. The rationale for isolation was to prevent collaboration and recidivism, to promote reformatory practice, and “to create a situation in which the words and power of the imprisoning and reforming power will take on even greater authority due to the relative silence of all others.” Eastern State was based on the Quaker model of silence. Designed by architect John Haviland, with walls extending outward, prisoners could not see each other in their cells. They worked and exercised alone in the yards that extended from their cells. Quaker groups, religious men and women, and chaplains who visited would stand and talk to each man individually. They rationalized solitary confinement as a more humane and reformative approach to punishment. Its proponents believed that, in isolation, “the truth lodged deep in the soul could present itself, aided by the encouragement of the bible and the words of the minister.”
One journalist opined of the Quaker system, “It showed a touching faith in human nature, although precious little knowledge of it.” Isolation in Eastern State Penitentiary drove many to suicide and despair, rather than penitence and reform. Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont, who had been sent by the government of France in 1831 to survey American penitentiaries, and whose observations still prove eerily prescient today, wrote, “We have often trod during the night those monotonous and dumb galleries, where a lamp is always burning: we felt as if we traversed catacombs; there were 1,000 living beings, and yet it was a desert solitude.” And, “This absolute solitude, if nothing interrupt it, is beyond the strength of man; it destroys the criminal without intermission and without pity; it does not reform, it kills.”
From the time of the first prisons, the aim of redemption always dueled with the rationale of efficiency, control, and profitability. Tocqueville and Beaumont wrote, “The prisoner in the United States breathes in the penitentiary a religious atmosphere that surrounds him on all sides.” However, punishment could induce profits and efficiency from prisoner workers, while the missionary might simultaneously evangelize a captive population. If solitary was one method for remaking the prisoner, labor was another, and the contract system in which outside businesses paid a fixed rate for prisoner labor was introduced as early as 1817 in Auburn. Silence was a way to keep prisoners from contaminating each other with their sins, but it also enabled the keepers of the prison to squeeze productivity from an unruly and unmotivated workforce through increasingly extreme corporeal punishments. The prisoner’s labor and wages became an incentive for reform of the Quaker model and increased the power of the prison over the prisoner. At Auburn State Prison, politicians and prison administrators, eager to make the prison profitable, supplemented silence at night with communal labor by day.
Punishment and control existed in multiple forms: the lash, labor, or isolation for the sake of religious transformation. In the same prisons where ministers stood extolling the virtues of repentance in the dark prison corridor, with a lantern hanging from the cell bars, prisoners would be whipped and forced to work all day. Prison authority and God’s grace in Auburn and Eastern were inseparable; submitting to God meant submitting to prison authorities. Neither system—of silent, congregate labor or separate, solitary cells—allowed any form of communication between the imprisoned, because it was thought community would lead to corruption and depravity, and hinder moral reform. For prisoners who resisted religious instruction, the reformers believed that the hours of isolation might eventually drive them to biblical devotion and reflection, particularly because the Bible was the only book available to them.
Although Eddy, the Quaker, still saw prisoners as human beings, Calvin’s notion of an inherently flawed and sinful human nature reigned at Auburn State Prison. Elam Lynd, the warden of Auburn, himself religious, proved to be despotic and vicious. Lynd rejected the idea of religious reformation. “We must understand each other,” he told Tocqueville and Beaumont. “I do not believe in a complete reform, except with young delinquents. Nothing, in my opinion, is rarer than to see a convict of mature age become a religious and virtuous man. I do not put great faith in the sanctity of those who leave the prison. I do not believe that the counsels of the chaplain or the meditations of the prisoner, make a good Christian of him.”
Since the prison was meant to be financially viable, any method of brutality was justified. Lynd introduced the lash as punishment for broken rules. At the sound of a keeper’s whistle, men in his prison moved in lockstep, with their arms held tightly to their chests or with one hand down and the other resting on the arm or shoulder of the prisoner ahead of him. Prisoners could reclaim their humanity by surrendering their will to God and, more importantly, to the authority of Lynd. In 1825, in his zeal for productivity, Lynd had prisoners floated on barges from Auburn down the Hudson River to Ossining, New York. There, in silence and backbreaking labor, they built Sing Sing Prison. Many of them would go on to live there.
Tocqueville and Beaumont characterized the American system this way: “The Philadelphia system produces more honest men, and that of New York more obedient citizens.”
Externally, Auburn’s system worked on the body, at the level of movements, gestures, and attitudes: an infinitesimal power over the active body. The constant coercion and supervision of the body’s activity was the object, rather than internal or spiritual reform. “The whole duty of a convict in this prison is to obey orders, labor diligently in silence, and whenever it is necessary for him to speak to a keeper, to do it with a humble sense of his degraded situation,” Lynd wrote. Life was routinized. Bells rang to determine mealtimes. Keepers kept vigilant watch over the prisoners. The prisoners woke and worked in silence. In her book on the history of religion in prison, Jennifer Graber writes that Auburn’s prisoners had become the walking dead—bodies in disciplined motion, without the will to resist. It was no longer the cannon directed at the unruly inmates but a system of discipline, labor, and religious coercion.
After the Civil War, the Quaker model of solitude and individual labor proved more costly and less efficient than Auburn’s communal model. As the United States became more religiously, racially, and ethnically diverse, prisons gradually became more punitive. Prisoners who emerged from the hellholes of Auburn and Sing Sing told stories of physical terror that exposed the lie that suffering might be redemptive. Their stories emphasized the concept that prison hardened rather than reformed; it turned men into beasts. And yet a public outcry about the barbarity of the lash at Auburn only engendered more intricate and pernicious forms of brutality: the shower in which a man was tied to a chair and continually doused with cold water; the gag, a metal plate inserted in the mouth and attached to cuffs by a chain; screws and pulleys by which to hang a man by his thumbs. The success and profitability of Auburn and Sing Sing encouraged Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio, Vermont, and Virginia to develop similar models.
Around the same time Auburn became a paragon of prison management to extract maximum labor, the model of the prisoner as disposable laborer found its apotheosis in the transition from slavery to convict lease farms in the South. Their models of prisoner control were fueled by Southern ideas of racial subjugation and white supremacy. Southern prisons and work farms were often former plantations, where brutality and horror far eclipsed any idea of redemption. Robert Perkinson, in his book on the history of prisons in Texas, compares the Northern and Southern prisons: “One reformatory; one retributive; one integrationist, one exclusionary; one conceived in northern churches and the other on southern work farms.” With the highest rates of incarceration and reputations as the most violent places to do time in the United States, these same Southern prisons are today the sites of religious evangelization and faith-based ministries.
The Reconstruction era after the Civil War marked a moment of hope and possibility for freed African Americans. During this brief period, African American men and women owned land and businesses, and ran for political office; it seemed that democracy might take root in the rubble of the defeated states of the Confederacy. However, Southern white elites struck back, and soon legislatures began criminalizing actions like loitering and vagrancy, behaviors that had never been subject to criminal sanction in the past. Politicians, desperate to maintain white supremacy, and terrified of the newly enfranchised African Americans, sought ways to enslave on work farms those who had once been enslaved on plantations. The black codes or “pig laws” became justification for sending children from the age of eight and adults to the newly built convict lease farms. The pig laws resulted in the record imprisonment of black men during Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era and, along with the convict lease system, restored white-dominated political and social order. W. E. B. Du Bois, one of the foremost African American intellectuals of this period, wrote of Reconstruction, “The slave went free, stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.”
In his book Worse Than Slavery, David Oshinsky describes the horror of the convict lease farms. Men convicted of the increasingly labyrinthine number of crimes targeting African Americans were leased out to work for the benefit of landowners, where overseers whipped and worked convicts to death. The system was maintained by a trustee system in which prisoners called “Big Stripes,” armed with guns, guarded other prisoners. However, since prisoners were no longer property, they could be worked to death, discarded, and replaced by new prisoners. The number of African Americans in the convict lease system grew exponentially, while white imprisonment declined during this period. Mary Church Terrell, the first president of the National Association of Colored Women, argued, “In . . . the convict lease camps of the South to-day are thousands of colored people men, women, and children, who are enduring a bondage, in some respects more cruel and crushing than that from which their parents were emancipated 40 years ago.” Whites received longer sentences because they were usually punished only for the most heinous crimes, and while whites did work on the convict lease farms, they were often kept in the prisons rather than leased out to corporations and landowners. As accounts by white prisoners of their treatment “as slaves” leaked out, the public unleashed its outrage at the specter of white men and women subjected to slavelike conditions.
The only goal in this model of imprisonment was profit, gained through the brutal control of bodies. The South needed to industrialize, and freed slaves became the engine of labor in coal mines, lumber mills, railroad camps, and sugarcane plantations in Alabama, Arkansas, Texas, Virginia, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana, and Mississippi, the same states with the highest presence of faith-based ministries today. The expansion of the Texas prisoner population coincided with the railroad boom of the 1870s. Convicts laid most of the 3,500 miles of track in North Carolina. Modern corporations like US Steel and Imperial Sugar, the railroads, and even the construction of the capital city of Texas were made possible through this system. The South’s economic development depended on the sweat and blood of prisoners: between 1866 and 1915, the death toll of men in the convict lease system exceeded 30,000.
The system of convict leasing lasted until after 1915, but its legacy has stretched far beyond. Prisons like Parchman Farm became the Mississippi State Penitentiary, which now has a Baptist seminary. Angola, a slave plantation and convict lease farm, is now the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Still referred to as “the farm,” it is the site of the original prisoner missionary program. Darrington Unit in Texas, also originally a plantation and then a convict lease farm, is the latest permutation of the faith-based prison experiment. The application for the Darrington seminary program describes its seminarians as farmhands going out into the fields to harvest, a metaphor supposed to invoke the idea of a missionary field but one that is especially haunting, given the prison’s history.
Over time, the penitentiary model declined in favor of labor and profit rather than individual reformation. The term “penitentiary” was rarely used after the Civil War. It was replaced by the word “reformatory.” Eastern State Penitentiary, the last of the prisons based on Quaker models of solitary confinement, turned to congregate labor in 1913. The formation of the Prison Association of New York in 1844 and the first national prison conference in Cincinnati in 1870 signaled the institutionalization and professionalization of punishment during the Progressive Era.
The word “reformatory” reflected the shift in thinking to prisons that emphasized education, labor, and training. Increasingly, the public expected bureaucrats and officials to administer the prison, rather than religious reformers. This era ushered in a rehabilitative ethos based on theories of medical, behavioral, and biological science that viewed people in prison as sick and in need of cure rather than religious redemption. Psychotherapeutic treatments became prevalent in prisons, and by 1926, 67 prisons employed psychiatrists and psychologists. Religion was rarely a feature of these new programs, and many prisons were renamed “correctional institutions” in the 1950s as part of the wider hospital metaphor of treatment. In the Northern states, gradually, the idea of “corrections” that we now associate with prisons took precedence.
The idea that prisons would provide job training, basic education and access to recreation infused the carceral system around the middle of the twentieth century. Several trends followed this period of rehabilitation. First, rehabilitative programs began to disappear in the 1970s and 1980s. At the same time, the combination of tougher sentencing laws and the War on Drugs flooded the prison system with predominantly poor and African American and Latino men and women. As the racially disproportionate behemoth of mass incarceration in the United States that we have today emerged in the 1980s, the state withdrew support for programs in favor of warehousing vast numbers of people. Highly organized and influential prison ministries began to reenter the prison in a more organized manner during this punitive period of massive prison growth and unprecedented numbers of men and women in prisons.
Prison Fellowship (PF) became one of the most prominent, evangelical prison ministry organizations in the United States. Its founder, Chuck Colson, died in 2012, but his belief in evangelicals as a social force to transform mass incarceration shaped the current conservative coalition around criminal justice reform. Colson was a former Nixon aide, known for his ruthless political tactics, and he served seven months in federal prison for obstruction of justice as part of his Watergate crimes. Upon his release in the late 1970s, he wrote the book Born Again and refashioned himself as an advocate for the redemptive power of evangelical Christianity on criminals. He attributed his zeal for prison ministry to the men he met in prison, who, he felt, were often victims of injustice, and to the prison itself, as marked by despair. Colson left prison convinced that secular rehabilitative programs would never succeed. Formally incorporated in August 1976 as Prison Fellowship, Colson’s ministry offered prison authorities an alternative to secular rehabilitative programs that were widely judged to have failed, especially in the aftermath of the Attica Prison uprising. His model was based on fellowship groups of prisoners supported by community volunteers, and it coincided with renewed interest by evangelicals in the prison as a mission field.
Colson’s faith-based experiment in the United States drew inspiration from a Christian prison in Brazil called Humaita, near Sao Paulo, which was built by the Association for the Protection and Assistance for the Convicted (APAC) in the 1970s. Mario Ottoboni, the founder, attended, with 15 other couples, a Cursillo, a short course on Christianity consisting of 15 talks and five meditations spread over three days. At the end of a Cursillo, a person embarks on the “fourth day,” considered to be the rest of his life. As part of his fourth day, Ottoboni went to work with prisoners in Brazil. Like the early prison reformers of the 1790s, he had toured a jail in Brazil and was appalled by the conditions there. There were more than 150 men in a space meant for 40, without water, sunlight, or cleaning materials. “It is imperative to restore in the prisoner the sense of human dignity and divine affiliation, so that he can turn himself to goodness,” Ottoboni wrote. “It should never be forgotten that the whole of the APAC approach finds its inspiration in the sacrifice on the cross, and in the merciful look of Christ when he turned to the repentant thief and announced his salvation.” A judge granted Ottoboni and others unlimited access to the Brazilian prison, with authority over how it would be run, allowing Ottoboni to act as a subsidiary of the justice system. He and others authored a book called Christ Wept in Jail, which prompted the Brazilian government in 1976 to reform its penal code and treat prisoners in a more humane manner. After various setbacks, Ottoboni took over Humaita as a private entity in 1984.
Humaita is a “community in perfection,” said to be indistinguishable from any other kind of faith-based community. It wants to transform not only the prisoners but the prison environment. Humaita teaches responsibility to a community rather than individual tasks or programs. According to the professor of biblical law Jonathan Burnside, “The State can build prisons, nominate agents, assign resources—but cannot give love. It is only we, physical persons . . . that can face the challenge of seeding love in the prisons.” Participants at the Humaita program receive judicial, medical and psychological assistance, good food, and a prison free from the corrupting influence of the police. They have their own canteen, a barbershop, and a place for families to visit. They also receive sentence reductions for participation; for each day in the program, one day is subtracted from their sentence. Men participate in daily prayers, literacy and professional-skills courses, and the Cursillo course to win unbelievers called Journey with Christ. They also have godmothers and godfathers, community members who agree to sponsor them and visit them throughout their time in prison. In addition to moving through five phases of progressive freedom, the prison has a prisoners’ council of 100 men, including a Council on Sincerity and Security, which enforces the rules and behavior of the community. Those who violate a rule go before the 15 members of the Council on Sincerity and Security to explain their behavior.
Colson visited Humaita and used it as a model for Prison Fellowship. The first Prison Fellowship faith-based dorm in prisons opened in the United States in 1997, and APAC officially became a part of Prison Fellowship International in 1989. The central part of the fellowship is the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, a 24-hour-a-day Christian immersion program that it later started in prisons around the United States. The fellowship has contracted with state corrections departments to minister to entire wings of men’s medium security prisons in Texas, Missouri, Minnesota, Iowa, and Kansas.
The program begins 18 to 24 months before a prisoner is released. To be eligible to join, prisoners must be within two years of parole and must proclaim their status as born-again Christians. Men and women work at a job during the day and attend classes to develop their life skills and spiritual maturity. The classes focus on time management, anger control, family relations, and job preparedness. There are also classes dedicated to biblical doctrine and scripture memorization. Evenings are filled with more Christian teaching and discipleship seminars that run until 10 p.m. During the second phase of the program, prisoners must perform community service, and they are encouraged to apologize and make restitution to their victims in the form of letters or meetings. Six months into the program, each person is matched with a Christian church volunteer who mentors him or her during the remaining time in prison. After release, that person continues to mentor him or her for six to twelve months, during which the former prisoner must hold a job and be an active church member.
During the 1970s, another prison-ministry movement, called Kairos, also inspired by Humaita, spread throughout the United States. The goal of Kairos was not only to help Christ in saving souls, but to transform prison environments; it was based on the idea that religious volunteers and people inside prison could bond despite the disparities in their situations. Kairos began during a weekend at Union Correctional Institution in Raiford, Florida, in 1976. Its stated goal was “to bring Christ’s love and forgiveness to all incarcerated individuals, their families, and those who work with them, and to assist in the transition of becoming a productive citizen.”
Kairos doesn’t create faith-based dorms or prisons, as some ministries do, but it is one of the oldest and most active ministries. Kairos ministries currently operate in over 33 states and close to 300 prisons in the United States and in prisons in Australia, Canada, England, Costa Rica, Peru, Nicaragua, Honduras, and South Africa. Kairos holds approximately 650 weekend gatherings each year and has one of the highest numbers of prison volunteers in the United States, and it organizes 7,000 short courses in Christianity, based on the Cursillo method, during Kairos weekends involving 170,000 people in US prisons.
In order to run a Kairos weekend in a prison, volunteers must commit to 40 hours of preparatory community building over a two-week period. Kairos believes the best volunteers have suffered from abuse, addiction to drugs and alcohol, isolation, and abandonment, just like the men and women inside the prison. Often, volunteers are required to make themselves vulnerable by sharing their own struggles in order to build trust and sustain connections. While the volunteers might imagine a compassionate connection with the prisoners, if they have not properly overcome their own problems, they risk reinforcing what has happened to prisoners, rather than being models of transformation. The founder of Kairos argues, “The volunteers are not worth anything to the prisoners unless they are vulnerable and of course that same vulnerability makes them a security risk.”
For volunteers, being in the prison must be a willing sacrifice rather than a professional obligation. They are to be authentic and vulnerable, to share the agape love of God, no matter what it costs the volunteer emotionally. The founder of Kairos writes that “when we begin doing it for any other reason, whether it is being paid or moving into that ministry because it feels good to us . . . then we begin to lose track of what we are up to and the authenticity disappears. Kairos welcomes prisoners of any religion, despite its explicit Christianity, and bills itself as broadly ecumenical. The ministry eschews altar calls, overt proselytizing, and speaking in tongues for the sake of this identification. During a Kairos weekend, women and men in prison are led through a structured “encounter” program in which they are introduced to Kairos’s philosophy and the volunteers on Thursday night. The next day, they “encounter the self ” and scrutinize their own decisions and their relationship with God. On Saturday, they encounter Christ and are required to analyze how Christ resonates as a model for forgiveness in their relationships. Finally, on Sunday, they expand beyond the focus on the self and encounter others, which should launch them into the process of aligning themselves with a fellowship of Kairos graduates as part of a broader religious community within the prison. After the completion of the weekend course, they will participate in another reunion, join a weekly prayer and fellowship group, and finish with a final two-day retreat. The “prayer and share” group produces continuity for prisoners who have completed Kairos trainings.
Kairos chooses prisoners for its three-day weekend courses who are leaders; they do not need to be Christian but must have significant influence over the prison population. Kairos strives to recruit people like gang leaders who might not come to the chapel but who can aid it in transforming the prison. By converting the most powerful and influential prison leaders, Kairos persuades others to become Christians; the prison authorities benefit as well when prisoner leaders are under the sway of a ministry group. Kairos volunteers are forthcoming about their own sins during the weekend courses as a way to encourage prisoners to show vulnerability. The volunteers work on listening skills, disclosing formative life experiences to all who attend. In a meditation called “the Wall,” prisoners are supposed to testify about how their behavior has led them to isolate themselves from others. After the weekend, Kairos urges the men and women in the groups to continue meeting together once a week and organizes weekly reunions with outside volunteers. Kairos weekends become the basis for ongoing Bible study.
Thomas Eddy, the Quaker reformer, preached, “Work on the prisoner’s soul must be carried out as often as possible. The prison, though an administrative apparatus, will at the same time be a machine for altering minds.” Over 100 years after the first penitentiaries, APAC, Prison Fellowship, and Kairos reintroduced to the prison individual conversion and heart change as the central facet of transformation. The growth of faith-based ministries nationally and the evangelical impulse to remake people into Christians has taken root in prisons where historically reform was never a consideration—prisons like Darrington.
Texas has over 100 state and private prisons; it is one of the largest prison networks in the United States, and many men and women are serving life terms or the equivalent. During the class I described at the beginning of this chapter, prisoners discussed how to ascertain someone’s motives and deal with recalcitrant potential converts. A constant din distinguishes Darrington from other prisons, and the unceasing clamor only abates when the door to the seminary wing closes. Other prisons I’ve visited did not seem as unremittingly loud. Darrington has one long main corridor, with staircases and rows of barred cells down the central artery. The day rooms, mostly lined with white painted benches and a few tables, are the domain of the prison gangs, according to men in the seminary. The students treat their status as potential missionaries with gravity, and their white jumpsuits and the stark white walls of the windowless classroom gave the classroom an almost monastic appearance. The men I speak with tell me that, once the seminary program was underway, the gang leadership agreed to reserve a special table just for seminary students. The story of Christians being protected and sanctioned by the gangs has become the stuff of legend here, although I am never able to verify if it is true.
Echoing Eddy’s sentiments from the early 1800s, Ben Phillips, the seminary director, tells the men at Darrington, “You know when you got into this program that it is largely not to minister to the free world; your assignment—and you’re already doing it, I understand, in your cell blocks—you’re going to change the culture of this system. It’s already happening in Darrington.” At Darrington and elsewhere, the purpose of redemption is to manage and contain the sprawling carceral system that exists throughout the United States. Unlike prisoners in the Quaker penitentiary, the students in the prison seminary are to govern themselves and each other. As I discuss in the next chapter, the seminary students forge community and belonging, but they watch each other carefully for lapses in behavior or even belief. Rather than outsiders, seminary students become the religious leaders in the prison, a rare chance for them to have responsibility or to participate in their own governance. Just as the reformers at Eastern State Penitentiary and Auburn State Prison did, Phillips believes he is bringing God’s word to the prison, and that it will spread through the influence of the students. The debate about good motives the men engaged in is key, because they must figure out how to shape and influence others within the prison. Keith, who is 35 years old and has a life sentence, told me that when they are sent to other Texas prisons as missionaries, their strategy should be to win over the other religious guys first, before they can even start to think about new converts.
The seminary grants the power to minister to others, to monitor each other, and to patrol prisoners’ own inner worlds for signs of sin or false motives. They spend their days in a quiet section of the prison, sealed off from the chaos of prison life. A particular officer is assigned to the seminary wing. Often, the students’ idea of who has authority over them can conflict with the administration and those paid to guard them. Patricia, from the women’s seminary in Louisiana, believes punishment is just, as long as it comes from God, who is an alternate authority to the prison. Many of the men in Darrington echoed that idea. God would enter their hearts and change them, and only God can determine their punishment and redemption, not the guards or the prison or the courts. Patricia and many of the men in the seminar were disdainful of the officers and even the mode of punishment the prison mandated. “Your job is not to punish me,” Patricia said. “I was punished when I went to court. I’m punished every day when I can’t go home. I’m punished when I talk to my daughter on the phone or my kids, when they have babies and I can’t be there. But it’s not your job to punish me.” For them, punishment is coupled with redemption of the individual by God. The two are inextricable.
From God in Captivity: The Rise of Faith-Based Prison Ministries in the Age of Mass Incarceration. Used with permission of Beacon Press. Copyright © 2017 by Tanya Erzen.