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Religion in Corrections

Published in The Encyclopedia of Crime and Punishment, Vol. 3. Pg. 1375. 2002

Sage Publications

Introduction

Throughout the long history of corrections, religious persons and religious institutions have greatly influenced the treatment of offenders.  For centuries, churches were among the first institutions to provide asylum for accused criminals. The actual establishment of prisons and penitentiaries was a religious idea to that allowed the offender to obtain penance for his crimes, make amends, and convert while being isolated from others.  But probably the most significant influence was the establishment of a regular chaplaincy. Correctional chaplains were among the earliest paid non-custodial staff and were the first to provide education and counseling for inmates. Currently, many correctional inmates practice their religion on an individual basis or within the structure of an organized religious program.  Religious programs are commonplace in jails and prisons and research indicates that one in three inmates participates in some religious program during their incarceration.

Historical Background

The influence and practice of religion in the correctional setting is as old as the history of prisons.  Initial entry of religion into prison was probably carried out by religious men who themselves were imprisoned.  The Bible stories of such prisoners include Joseph and Jeremiah in the Old Testament, and John the Baptist, Peter, John, and Paul in the New Testament.   Beginning in the days of Constantine, the early Christian Church granted asylum to criminals who would otherwise have been mutilated or killed.  Although this custom was restricted in most countries by the fifteenth century, releasing prisoners during Eastertime, and requests by Church authorities to pardon or reduce sentences for offenders, remained for centuries with the latter still in existence in a modified form. 

Imprisonment under church jurisdiction became a substitute for corporal or capital punishment.  In medieval times, the Roman Catholic Church developed penal techniques later used by secular states such as the monastic cell that served as a punishment place for criminal offenders. In 1593 the Protestants of Amsterdam built a house of correction for women, and one for men in 1603. In Rome, what are now the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, built correctional facilities for women, and in 1703 Pope Clement XI built the famous Michel Prison as a house of correction for younger offenders with separation, silence, work, and prayer emphasized. As late as the 18th century, the Vatican Prison still served as a model prison design for Europe and America. 

         Early settlers of North America brought with them the customs and common laws of England including the pillory, the stocks and the whipping post.  During the 18th century isolating offenders from fellow prisoners became the accepted correctional practice.  It was thought that long-term isolation, combined with in-depth discussions with clergy, would lead inmates to repent or become “penitent”—sorry for their sins.  Thus the term "penitentiary" was derived.   West Jersey and Pennsylvania Quakers were primarily responsible for many of the prison reforms. They developed the idea of substituting imprisonment for corporal punishment and combining the idea of the prison with the workhouse.  The prototype of this regime was the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia that in style reflected the Quakers’ belief in man’s ability to reform through reflection and remorse.

         Even during the 19th century when daytime work was initiated by the Auburn System, solitary confinement at night was still the norm in correctional practice. The forced solitary confinement was thought to serve the same repenting purpose as the older penitentiary.  Belief in education as a tool for reducing criminal activity also assisted in the growth of religion in prison. Because of the limited budgets of correctional institutions, Chaplains were often called upon to be the sole educator in many American prisons.  The "schooling" often consisted of the chaplain standing in a dark corridor with a lantern hanging from the cell bars while extolling the virtues of repentance. 

         Volunteers also have a long history in corrections that can be traced back to the beginning of prisons. In the last 200 years many religious groups have entered correctional facilities to provide religious services to inmates.  One of the most famous advocates for volunteers in corrections was Maud Ballington Booth, the daughter-in-law of William Booth who founded the Salvation Army.  Today, volunteers are vital to religious programs and without them inmate participation would surely be limited. Faith representatives would be unable to minister to the large number and variety of inmates.

         Many older correctional institutions are being refurbished or destroyed; replaced with facilities designed for better observation and security.  Yet the initial influence of religion on the philosophy and the design of the penitentiary will surely remain in correctional history.

Legal Issues

         In the First Amendment of the United States Constitution it is stated that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Because of this Amendment, state and federal correctional institutions must provide inmates with certain legal rights concerning the practice of religion. Among these rights are the opportunity to assemble for religious services, attend different denominational services, receive visits from ministers, correspond with religious leaders, observe dietary laws, pursue name changes, and obtain, wear and use religious paraphernalia.  All of these rights, however, must not supersede the security considerations of the institution. 

         Many of the leading court cases that provide current guidelines for the practice of religion in American prisons were decided during the 1960's and 1970's.  Until then, legal issues related to religious inmates were rarely brought before the courts. Among the most important cases during this period were Fulwood v. Clemmer (1962), Cooper v. Pate (1964), and Cruz v. Beto(1972).  In the Fulwood (1962) case the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that correctional officials must recognize the Muslim faith as a legitimate religion and not restrict those inmates who wish to hold services.  In Cooper v. Pate (1964) the courts recognized that prison officials must make every effort to treat members of all religious groups equally, unless they can demonstrate reasonableness to do otherwise.  In the up to then only prisoner-religion case to reach the Supreme Court, it was ruled in Cruz v. Beto that it was discriminatory and a violation of the Constitution to deny a Buddhist prisoner his right to practice his faith in a comparable way to those who practice the major religious denominations.  However, not all court cases related to religion have been decided in favor of inmates.  In 1977, a federal court ruled in Theriault v. Carlson that the First Amendment does not protect so-called religions that are obvious shams, that tend to mock established institutions, and whose members lack religious sincerity. This case was important in being one of the first cases to shift the tide away from decisions in favor of inmates' religious rights. 

Courts have a difficult task when they are asked to decide between the legitimate interests of inmates and the correctional facility.   In deciding such cases the courts now rely on a “balancing test,” which helps them decide how conflicting issues should be weighed.  The test was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987 in the case Turner v. Safley.   It consists of four questions:

1. Is there a valid connection between the regulation restricting a religious practice and a legitimate correctional interest?

2. Are inmates allowed other ways of exercising their right?

3. How much will allowing the inmates to exercise their right affect others in the correctional facility?

4. Are there available alternatives that accommodate both interests?

The Supreme Court also ruled in Turner v. Safley that future cases that involve inmates and their constitutional rights should use the balancing test and that correctional facility rules that limit inmates’ constitutional rights are generally acceptable if the are reasonably related to legitimate correctional interests. This Supreme Court ruling was affirmed later in 1987 in another important religion case, O'Lone v. Estate of  Shabazz (1987), when it was ruled that depriving an inmate of attending a religious service for "legitimate penological interests" was not in violation of the First Amendment. 

         The Turner test stood until 1993 when Congress drafted another law that was to restore certain religious freedoms to all Americans called the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (R.F.R.A.).  The Act was passed and signed into law in November 1993. Under R.F.R.A. restrictions on religious freedoms in prisons and jails would be upheld only if the government could show that the restrictions served a “compelling government interest.”  Further, R.F.R.A. required that the religious restriction in question must be the “least restrictive means of furthering that interest.” However in 1997, in the case City of Boerne v. Flores, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that R.F.R.A. was unconstitutional because it did not maintain the separation of powers necessary in the federal government.  With this ruling correctional authorities returned to the guidelines outlined in the Turner test.   The most recent legal ruling related to religion in corrections was developed in the year 2000. The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) was adopted by a unanimous vote in both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives in July of 2000, and later signed into law by President Clinton.  Among other issues, the Act assures that those confined in government institutions such as prisons will be protected in the practice of their faith. At this time it is too early to ascertain the implications of the law for correctional management and inmate religious practice.

Chaplaincy, Religious Groups, and Practices

         Most of the direct influence of religion in corrections has been accomplished through the work of correctional Chaplains. The term Chaplain is believed to be derived from the Latin term “capella” meaning a cloak.  In the Fourth Century the modern meaning developed from a story told about a soldier named Martin who shared his cloak with a beggar. That night Martin dreamed Christ came to him in a dream and he soon resigned from the army to serve as a “soldier of God.” Martin of Tours was later canonized by the Catholic Church and his cloak became a religious relic and was enshrined in a chapel.   The word Chaplain came to mean the “keeper of the cloak” and now calls for those who are religiously motivated to care for those in need.  Chaplaincy work was probably created informally during the early years of the Christian Church but became formal in the late 1400’s when the religiousOrder of Misericordia was founded to provide assistance and consolation to those condemned to death.  In 1733 the British Parliament authorized  magistrates to appoint chaplains to all prisons.  

         Early prison chaplains in the United States held positions of relative importance which is not surprising considering they were part of a system created by religious groups.  They were responsible for visiting inmates, providing services and sermons, and also served as teachers, librarians, and record keepers. At times the Chaplain may also act as an ombudsman for the inmates when issues of maltreatment would arise.  Chaplains were not always welcome in correctional facilities.  Many prison administrators, especially during the development of the reformatory, considered them only a hindrance to running a prison.  They were often viewed as being unnecessary as teachers, psychologists, and other professionals took their place in the correctional work group.  To many, the Chaplains were often naïve and easily manipulated by the inmates, sometimes prone to bickering among themselves, and with little ability to bring any real change in inmates.  During the 1920’s and 1930’s the Clinical Pastoral Education Movement emerged and changed prison chaplaincy for the better. The movement started the serious study of applying the principles, resources, and methods of organized religion to the correctional setting.  This resulted in the development of competent professional Chaplains who were able to meld with the rehabilitation ideas that surfaced from the 1930’s through the 1960’s. 

         The Chaplain of today is typically an educated and multi-skilled individual who is generally accepted as helpful by those who live and work in correctional facilities.  Chaplains serve a variety of functions. Their main purpose is to administer religious programs and provide pastoral care to inmates and institutional staff.   In the past, this meant that the common duties were to provide religious services, counsel troubled inmates, and advise inmates of  "bad news" from home or from correctional authorities.  More recently, the role of Chaplain has been expanded to include coordination of physical facilities, organizing volunteers, facilitating religious furlough visits, contracting for outside religious services, and training correctional administrators and staff about the basic tenets, rituals, and artifacts of non-traditional faith groups.  In the case when an individual or small group of inmates wish to practice a religion that is not familiar to a current Chaplain, a contract Chaplain, outside volunteer, or spiritual advisor who specializes in that faith perspective may be brought into the institution to minister to inmates.  Chaplains, contract Chaplains, volunteers, and spiritual advisors are also referred to as ‘faith representatives.’

         The specific kinds of religious groups vary from prison-to-prison and state-to-state. Nearly all state and federal correctional institutions provide support for at least some of the four traditional faith groups--Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, and Jewish.  As the United States has become more diverse, however, there are a number of non-traditional faith groups that have surfaced in correctional facilities.  They include variations of the four traditional groups in addition to the following: Hinduism, Mormons, Native-American, Buddhist, Rastafarian, Hispanic religions (Curanderism, Santeria, Espiritismo), Jehovah Witness, Christian Scientists, and two of the newest faith groups to enter correctional facilities, Witchcraft and Satanism.

         The religious programs and practices conducted by the different faith groups differ according to the beliefs of the group, inmate interest, amount of time and space available in the prison, competence of the religious staff, and the support of the correctional authorities.  It is not uncommon for a large prison to have numerous religious services on a daily basis.  For example, a typical day could include a Bible study class, Catholic Mass, Islamic Ta'Leem, Jewish Faith Meeting, Spanish Gospel Group, and a Native American Sweat Lodge Ceremony. Another institution that containsa less diverse group of inmates, might provide only a main Sunday services and one or two weeknight Bible study groups.  Jails (institutions for short term inmates and those awaiting trial or transfer) may limit religious practice to a single service for alldenominations called an ecumenical service or even “cell-by-cell” ministry whereby the Chaplains from the different denominations visit inmates individually as requested.  In many institutions there are inmates who choose to practice their faith in a more private manner and they choose not to attend any formal services. In this case, the inmates may even develop their own “personal religion” that consists of a combination of traditional and non-traditional faith perspectives. 

         In addition to regular religious programs some correctional facilities allow special seminars.  These seminars are conducted by various faith groups, held several times a year and conducted by volunteers who visit the institution for two or three days. The purpose of the seminars is to motivate inmates to turn to religion, which will hopefully lead them to a better, crime-free life.  Some of the most common prison seminars are Prison Fellowship, Kairos, Bill Glass Ministries, Match 2, International Prison Ministries, Aleph Institute, Yokefellows, and the National Marriage Encounter Prison Ministry, Inc.  The number and type of seminars vary depending on the location of the institution and the interest of volunteers and inmates. 

         Although jails generally do not allow religious items beyond religious writings, prisons usually allow inmates to possess religious items and clothing.  Among those that are allowed in different institutions include religious beads, headbands, prayer oils, prayer rugs, sacred pipes, medicine pouches, medallions, feathers and sacred plants, and phylacteries which are small boxes containing quotations from the Hebrew Scriptures. 

Reasons for Inmate Religious Involvement         

         It is very difficult to determine why prisoners become involved with religion while incarcerated.  This difficulty is caused by the fact that religious belief and practice is a very individual matter and exacerbated by the psychological complexities of living in prison.  However, in research conducted in the correctional setting it has been found that inmates practice religion while in prison for various personal and/or practical reasons.  

         In some cases inmates are simply practicing their faith by worshipping God or a higher power. Inmates either grew up practicing a religion or joined a religion later in life (or developed the interest during incarceration).  In many cases, inmates gain direction and meaning for their life from the practice of religion while in prison.  They feel that God, or Yahweh, or Allah will provide a direction to go in life, one that is better than their present psychological or physical condition.  Religion also provides hope for the inmates-- hope to reform from a life of crime, and from a life of imprisonment.  Some inmates even feel that being incarcerated is the "Will of God" and that full acceptance of this will is essential to being faithful in one's religious belief.  Along these lines, some inmates feel that practicing religion gives them a “peace of mind,” which means having some level of personal contentment.  Having this peace of mind helps inmates improve their well-being especially those serving long sentences. 

         A very important reason why inmates become involved with religion is to improve their own self-concept.  Lack of a positive self-concept is a common problem with correctional inmates who may suffer from guilt related to failures in life, remorse from criminal acts, or, from the pain of a dysfunctional family background.  Because the core of many religious beliefs includes acceptance and love from a higher being, and from members of the faith group, inmates often feel better about themselves if they practice religion while incarcerated. 

         In addition to the many psychological and emotional benefits, inmates also can use religion to help change their behavior.  Following the principles and discipline that is required in the serious practice of religion can teach inmates self-control. Having self-control helps inmates avoid confrontations with  otherinmates and staff, and it helps them comply with prison rules and regulations.

         Correctional inmates may also become involved with religion to gain protection, meet other inmates, meet volunteers, or obtain special prison resources. 

Physical Protection:  To be safe, many inmates believe that they need to be part of a group which can provide physical protection from other inmates. Without this protection, inmates believe they may be subject to blackmail, sexual exploitation, or physical confrontation.  Inmates who practice religion for this reason assume that the religious group will provide the protection necessary to avoid such difficulties.  In some cases, inmates who join religious groups for protection are trying to be part of a “gang.” This may be especially true when certain gangs from the outside have reunited in the jail or prison. 

         Religious services are considered a “safe haven” because few physical attacks usually occur in a place of worship.  Inmates seem to have respect for places of worship or believe that attending services is a privilege. Inmates might also believe that religious services are too “open” a place to commit a crime.

Meet Other Inmates:  Religious services are an important meeting place for inmates because  the opportunity to attend  is usually available to all inmates in the general prison population.   Inmates value the opportunity to meet other inmates for many reasons, but two are noteworthy.   First, like those in the free world, inmates enjoy regular social interaction with friends and groups of individuals with similar interests.  Becoming involved in religion while in prison can provide a mechanism for inmates to find feel accepted by other individuals or by a group.  Second, some inmates meet at religious services for the purpose of passing contraband.  The contraband passed can be food, written messages, cigarettes, drugs, or even weapons. 

Meet Volunteers of the Opposite Sex: Inmates have few opportunities to interact with members of the opposite sex.  Civilians often volunteer to visit correctional facilities to help with religious services and programs.  In many cases these volunteers are women.   The male inmates look forward to coming to religious services to meet the women, and the female inmates look forward to meeting the male volunteers as well.

Obtain Material Resources or Special Favors: Other inmates become involved with religion to gain free access to special resources that are difficult or costly to obtain while incarcerated.  These include free goods such as food and coffee, holiday greeting cards and books, and musical instruments.  For example, during many of the special religious programs and religious holidays coffee, cookies and donuts are supplied for inmates who attend religious services.  In addition, certain religious groups can receive special food privileges during certain religious holidays.  For example, Muslims are often allowed a special diet during Ramadan, and Jewish inmates are allowed a special diet during Passover.  All inmates can receive these goods and privileges if they attend certain religious services or show a minimal interest in being a member of a specific religious group. The resources gained from religious involvement can also include individual favors from the faith representatives.  More specifically, the faith representative can sometimes provide phone access and written recommendations for parole or transfer.  Because of institutional rules about use of the telephone, inmates who need to make a call for emergency reasons may find access limited.  The inmates’ only other option is to use the phone of a staff member.  The faith representative is the most likely choice because they are often sympathetic to the needs of the inmates and has a phone in the privacy of their own office.  Inmates may also feel that the religious representative may be a good person to ask for a letter of reference before a parole board hearing or to request a transfer to another institution. 

Religion as a “Con Game”

          The most common belief about why inmates practice religion while in prison is that many inmates "find religion" for manipulative purposes, or a “con game.”  It is believed that inmates hope prison administrators and parole authorities will view their religious practice as an attempt to become moral, pro-social, and law-abiding citizens.  The result will be earlier parole release.    For decades the correctional literature and popular media have cultivated this belief. 

          Correctional officers often support this "religion for early parole" viewpoint. They base their impressions on personal experience of  witnessing inmates who have professed to be religious, but who have then acted to the contrary or who are repeat visitors to the institution.  Also, correctional officers support this view because they are influenced by their own subculture.  This subculture, as with other cultures, possesses certain beliefs that are accepted as truth, and passed among the officers.  The belief about inmates finding religion for early parole has been transmitted through generations of correctional inmates, officers, and staff. 

          Inmates' opinions of religion in prison are quite diverse. Some believe, like the correctional officers, that inmates practice religion while in prison only to influence the Chaplain or Warden for improved living conditions while incarcerated or for a positive recommendation to the parole board.  Others feel that fellow inmates participate in religious programs for a "psychological crutch".  These skeptics feel that religion serves to placate individual inmates who were "weak" or need assistance in dealing with the difficulties of prison life.  They claim the practice of religion may enhance self-esteem and good feelings, but only because those involved could not find these things without this "crutch". 

          However not all inmates, correctional officers and staff think negatively of the intentions of religious inmates.    Because serious religious involvement promotes self-discipline, self-introspection, and concern for others, many feel that inmates can acquire a number of positive characteristics from the practice of religion in prison.   The positive characteristics include psychological peace of mind, positive self-concept, and improvements in self-control and intellectual abilities.

          In recent years there has been an increased interest on the topic of religion in corrections and in finding out whether the practice of religion in corrections has had any positive impact on inmates.  Some research evidence is present that supports the view that the practice of religion helps to control inmate behavior during incarceration.  Other studies have found that inmates who are very active in religious programs are less likely to be re-arrested after release from prison, and that their likelihood of success can be enhanced by post-release religious involvement. The recent interest in the topic is encouraging, and hopefully will allow more definitive dialogue about the impact of religion in corrections. But at this juncture religious practice appears to only change some inmates in some cases, and appear to become involved with religion while incarcerated for a variety of reasons, and to determine the sincerity of religious practice and its long term impact is a daunting task.

Conclusion

          Religious persons and religious institutions have long been associated with correctional practice.  This influence began prior to the invention of the prison, continued with the development of a correctional philosophy aimed at repentance, and more recently serves to assist inmates who try to practice their faith while incarcerated.  Prison Chaplains have always served as the main conduit through which religion is delivered at correctional facilities.  Chaplains and other ‘faith representatives’ are currently employed in all correctional facilities and they serve a variety of functions.  In the United States, the ability to practice ones religion. even for those who are incarcerated, is supported by state and federal laws, however, this right must not interfere with the security of the institution.  Religious practice is no longer only in the form of the Judeo-Christian experience in American prisons. A variety of faith groups are now present in many institutions, each with their own form of religious practice. 

          Although it is difficult to judge why an inmate becomes involved with religion, it is apparently for a variety of personal and practical reasons. The common belief held by many, including by some who live and work in correctional facilities, is that inmates “find religion” for manipulative reasons.  Although this may be the case in some instances, there is evidence that some inmates have been changed for the better due to their incarceration and religious practice. 

          With the growth of the American correctional system, and the continuing ethnic and cultural diversification of society, the face of religion in prison may soon change.  As correctional facilities become crowded and correctional budgets grow, one of the areas that often suffer from economic cutbacks are rehabilitation programs.  In this event, even more pressure will be placed on chaplains and religious programs to provide added mental health assistance to inmates. For example, as counseling programs are trimmed, support for those with various forms of mental illness or those with (HIV) AIDS may fall in the hands of faith representatives. Also, as prisons become more crowded and job requirements becoming more complex, correctional officers and other staff will surely turn to religious leaders and volunteers to help them deal with the psychological stress of working in prison. The call for more secure prisons, as manifested in the development of the super-maximum prisons where inmates are isolated from other inmates and staff up to 23 hours a day, will mean the reduction of group religious practices. This will result in the need for more cell-to-cell ministry and may also cause an increase in individual forms of  “spirituality” and religious practice.

          With the increased need for sensitivity towards diversity, faith representatives will also be asked to develop and implement programs aimed at reducing racial conflict and improving multi-culturalism. This is  significant to faith representatives who will need to be well-versed in a variety of faiths and cultural perspectives.  At the same time it is possible that their own faith will be challenged by inmates and staff  who believe differently.  Finally, as the prison population grows, more inmates are also eventually released back into society. Thus, programs aimed at the successful reintegration of inmates back into the community will need the assistance of religious personnel to find employment and promote positive family relationships.  Whatever the changes in corrections and larger society, it is likely that because of the historical and legal foundation of religion in corrections that it will continue to be an active part of prison life and programming.

References and Key Sources on the Topic

Clear, T.R. Stout, B.D. Dammer, H.R. Kelly, L. Hardyman, P.L. and Shapiro, C. (1992).  Final Report:  Feasibility Study of the Impact of Religious Involvement on Prisoners.  Published by Rutgers University. Presented to the Justice Fellowship Inc., Washington, D.C. 1992.

Dammer, H.R. (2000) Religion in Corrections. Lanham, MD: American Correctional Association.

Hoyles, J. (1955)  Religion in Prison. Epworth Publishers.

Johnson, B. (1984)  Hellfire and Corrections. Doctoral Dissertation. Ann Arbor,MI: Microfilms International.

Johnson, Byron, R. Larson, David B. and Pitts, Timothy C. (1997). Religious Programs, institutional adjustment, and recidivism among former inmates in prison fellowship program. Justice Quarterly, 14, 145-166.

Keuther, Frederick C. (1951) Religion and the chaplain. In Paul W. Tappan  (Ed.), Contemporary correction (pp. 254-265). New York: McGraw Hill.

Murphy, George .L. (1956) The social role of the prison chaplain. Doctoral dissertation, University of Pittsburgh.

O’Connor, T. P. Ryan, P., and Parikh, C. (1997) The impact of religious programs on inmate infractions at Lieber prison in South Carolina. Report prepared for the South Carolina Department of Corrections.

Shaw, Richard D. (1995) Chaplains to the Imprisoned: Sharing Life with the Incarcerated.

New York: Haworth Press.

Skotnicki, Andrew (1991). Religion and the development of the American penal system. Doctoral Dissertation, Graduate Theological Union. 

Sundt, Jody, L. (1997) Bringing Light to Dark Places: An occupational study of prison chaplains. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Cincinnati. OH.   

United States Department of Justice (1993). Survey of State Prisoners, 1991. Washington, D.C. Government Printing Office.

by: Harry R. Dammer

BIOGRAPHY FOR HARRY R. DAMMER

Harry R. Dammer, Ph.D.  is an Associate Professor and Chair of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Niagara University. He received his B.S. and M.S. degrees from the University of Dayton and his  Ph.D. in Criminal Justice from Rutgers University in 1992. In 1993 he received a Fulbright Scholar Award and with the award he taught and conducted research at the University of Saarland in Germany.  Dr. Dammer has published in the areas of international criminal justice, community corrections, and the practice of religion in the correctional environment.


For additional citations about other articles concerning Religion in Corrections see Vita and see research/publications.