Religion can reduce the incidence of anti-social behavior in prison, an independent study of Mississippi inmates concludes, making faith-based programs an attractive alternative to expensive correctional treatment.
“Religiosity” — believing in a higher power, attending worship services regularly and participating in faith-based prison programs — directly reduces inmate arguments, and thereby the fights that typically follow, according to the study published this month in the Journal of the Scientific Study of Religion.
Studies have shown that treatment programs focusing on literacy, general equivalency diplomas and college training, and recovery from substance abuse are promising, but are very expensive, compared with faith-based programs, said the study’s lead author, Kent R. Kerley, professor of criminal justice at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
The study was conducted at Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman, Miss. — one of the largest prisons in the United States, with 5,500 inmates — but did not address the effect religion has on inmates after they are released.
The study found that 74 percent of inmates who do not believe in a higher power engaged in at least one fight a month versus 53 percent of inmates who do believe. It also found that inmates who believe God’s law determines right and wrong were 58 percent less likely to fight at least once a month.
An official in Florida, the only state that has prisons devoted to faith-based guidelines, said signs of better behavior at two such institutions led to the opening of a third prison.
“It appears we have less discipline reports, and those we have usually are nonviolent, rather than violent. So, we are seeing better conduct in these [faith-based] prisons,” said Franchatta Barber, deputy assistant secretary of Institutions and Programs for the Florida Department of Corrections.
Nashville, Tenn.-based Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private prison company in the United States, offers religious programs at the 67 jails and prisons it operates in 29 states.
“You have to start with changes while inmates are still in prison, before you can expect changes when they get out,” said Chantel Gurney, a CCA spokeswoman.
As for religiosity, 94 percent of the respondents in the study said they believed in a higher power, 77 percent said right or wrong should be based on God’s laws, and 42 percent reported having a conversion experience in their lives.
Nearly 39 percent of the inmates surveyed said they attend prison religious services at least once a week, but more than 69 percent said they took part in a special one-day evangelical and entertainment event at the prison, known as Operation Starting Line.