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Press Release for Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Study Reveals Faith-Based Ministry Impact at America’s Largest Maximum-Security Prison

Media Contact: Joanna Norris, Director
Department of Public Relations
(904) 620-2102

 American prisons are in crisis. With an $80 billion annual cost to taxpayers and a recidivism rate of 70 percent, corrections officials beset by overpopulation and shrinking budgets have increasingly welcomed faith-based providers at no cost to help meet the needs of inmates.

Dr. Michael Hallett, criminology professor at the University of North Florida, has drawn from three years of on-site research in his new book,” The Angola Prison Seminary: Effects of Faith-Based Ministry on Identity, Transformation, Desistance and Rehabilitation,” which utilizes survey analysis along with life-history interviews of inmates and staff to explore the history, purpose and functioning of the Inmate Minister Program at Louisiana State Penitentiary—aka “Angola”—America’s largest maximum-security prison.

“Due to limited access, research on the impact of religion inside prisons has been lacking,” said Hallett. “This intensive three-year study, the largest ever conducted exploring the impact of religious faith in prison, utilized hundreds of hours of intensive interviews and a survey of over 2,200 inmates.”

Drawing from its unique history, Angola is the only prison in America that allows inmates to run their own churches—a practice expanded in the aftermath of a 1974 federal consent decree finding conditions at the prison famously “shocked the conscience of any right-thinking person.” Federal intervention provided new resources allowing inmates to design programs of their own choosing.

Since informal congregations had long existed at Angola, inmates were allowed to formalize these into active “churches,” producing an ecumenical panoply of worship, featuring Baptist, Pentecostal, Catholic, Methodist and other denominations collectively referred to as the “Angola Church.” Worshipers of other faiths, including a small contingent of Muslim inmates, also practice at the prison.

A first-of-its-kind prototype in a quickly expanding policy arena, Angola’s unique Inmate Minister Program deploys trained graduates of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in bi-vocational pastoral service roles throughout one of America’s toughest prisons. Inmates lead their own congregations and serve in lay-ministry capacities in Hospice, cell block visitation, delivery of familial death notifications to fellow inmates, “sidewalk counseling” and tier ministry, officiating inmate funerals and delivering “care packages” to indigent prisoners.

Hallett’s research and book takes seriously attributions from inmates that faith is helpful for surviving prison and explores the implications of religious programming for an American corrections system in crisis, featuring high recidivism, dehumanizing violence, and often excessively harsh and severe punishments.

His findings reveal seminary graduates and students reported lower levels of disciplinary convictions and participation in congregations was also related to lower levels of misconduct; the seminary and congregations had independent positive effects on misconduct. Another finding show non-seminary inmates from the general population who participated in congregations also reported lower levels of misconduct than those who didn’t.

Additionally, seminary and congregant inmates were more likely to report conversion narratives, religious involvement and positive self-identities than their counterparts. He also found that the observed differences in misconduct were attributable to conversion narrative, religiosity and positive self-identities. Lastly, misconduct among inmates who participated in seminary and congregations tended to decline or remain low over time compared to those who didn’t.

“The biggest surprise was how powerful religious practice proved to be for rehabilitation, in every way we measured it. For the first time, this study empirically documents how faith can play a transformative role in the self-understandings of offenders,” said Hallett.

UNF, a nationally ranked university located on an environmentally beautiful campus, offers students who are dedicated to enriching the lives of others the opportunity to build their own futures through a well-rounded education.