Are Faith-Based Prison Ministries Doing More Harm Than Good for the Inmates?

We have a problem with mass incarceration in this country. We lock people up for minor infractions. In many cases, we treat them like animals. And we rarely focus on helping them rehabilitate.

On top of that, we have evangelical ministries taking root in many of the prisons, giving people a false understanding of what lies ahead. But maybe that’s not all bad. Giving prisoners hope when they feel like they have nothing else going for them can be a powerful tool in changing their lives for the better.

In her new book God in Captivity: The Rise of Faith-Based Prison Ministries in the Age of Mass Incarceration (Beacon Press, 2017), Tanya Erzen takes a look at all sides of faith-based ministries.

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In the excerpt below, Erzen writes about a Muslim prisoner who runs into trouble advocating for his own faith:

To be a Muslim prisoner in a Texas prison is to exist at the lowest end of the religious hierarchy. Rodney is a student in the seminary at Darrington Unit, one of six Muslims, but he is the only one in his junior class. Serious, articulate, and thoughtful with deep wrinkles across his forehead, he always yearned to pursue a college degree, but the prison system is quite restricted. Rodney was incarcerated in Texas at age nineteen and is now thirty-four. When we first met, he seemed stunned to have the opportunity to speak with me. He says, “I cannot believe they asked me to talk with you. It is just… It is just shocking to me, you know what I mean?”

“Why?” I ask. “Because I feel so out of place in a sense,” he answers. “You know, I mean, you, you… it is like a fish out of water, so to speak, and speaking to the curriculum is… like the majority of the curriculum is, I want to say, bashing towards certain pillars of my belief.” In order to obtain a college degree, Rodney had requested transfer from another Texas prison where he had been part of a strong, tight-knit Muslim community, but his alienation is intense. “I left a beautiful Muslim community that I was raised as a Muslim in, and I miss my brothers very much, you know. I want to go — I do not want to stay here per se.” He says he is toughing it out to get an education, and for the long haul,

I want to take the things that I am learning here to implement in my family’s life and in my personal life, because one day I plan on going home. I have been here my whole life, basically, so I need something to fall back on, you know… What else is there for me to do while I am incarcerated? I cannot work; we do not get paid for working. I cannot go to college, because I do not have the money to pay for it. So, this is the best thing going.

Darrington, he explains, is decrepit, and people are disrespectful. After years of a measure of privacy, he has found it difficult to face the indignities of group showers and smaller cells. “Being incarcerated in Texas is a heck of an experience you know,” Rodney says. “So you got to make the best of it.” With the specificity of the convert, Rodney can relate the exact date he became a Muslim: December 29, 2006, immediately after his twenty-sixth birthday. He was impressed by two Muslims he met in a vocational course, one black and the other white. He’d been the top student, but when they arrived, he felt mediocre. “And I was like, ‘Mmm, I been here for a while and this one come in running the show, right.’” One of the brothers read him a passage from the Qur’an that he recites to me, “In the name of God most gracious, most merciful, say he is God, the one and only, the absolute, the eternal. And, there is none like unto Him.” Rodney read it over and over and felt revolutionized in his thinking. He’d been raised a Baptist and believed vaguely in God, but this spoke to him because he no longer felt he needed a mediator in order to have access to God. He impressed the chaplain when he took a class with her called “The Search for Significance” and decided to apply for the seminary. He explains, “She was a good Christian lady, I guess, and when the applications came around for the rest of the year, I got shot down. The second year I was approved.”

In the middle of our conversation, Rodney’s lips curl upward and he pauses. “I’m trying not to smile, but I cannot help it,” he says. “I am enjoying this. This is, this is so unusual for me, you know.” He tells me that he is a stern person and shows me his ID picture; a stone-faced man stares back at me. “This is the most you will ever see me smile,” he says. We agree; it’s more of a grimace. The reluctant grin still in place, he explains, “Well, we do not have an avenue to speak here, really, you know, as a Muslim. This is a Christian program, funded by Christians. I honestly respect it, because even though I do not agree with everything, I am being allowed, I am afforded an opportunity to make history, so to speak. I do not campaign. I just try to do, try to be sincere, and I want people to respect me for who I am, not kissing their rumps and things of this nature.” Clearly, for Rodney, studying in an explicitly Christian program with proselytizing goals creates a constant tension.

Rodney takes a breath. “Okay, I am just going to be one hundred with you; this means me 100 percent real,” he says. He describes a hypothetical situation in which a Christian and Muslim debate, and the Muslim is “very sharp in understanding what he believes in and how to apply that,” whereas the Christian is “not as crisp as he is.” Speaking in the third person, Rodney explains that the Muslim is able to apply history and tangible proof for his beliefs, while the Christian simply relies on his faith. He intimates that it creates a problem with the professors and the students. His anecdote is full of ellipses, pauses, and significant looks because he feels censored, though no one else is in the room. “So this is a stepping stone for me. I am not using it as a platform, but I am using it because it is the best option for me right now. And I think any thinking person will, in my position, do the same. Eat the meat and throw the bones away,” he says. “Have you heard that before?” he asks, and when I tell him I haven’t, he is inordinately pleased. “Oh good, I want to say something original.”

Rodney says he longs for more intellectual discussion and less preaching. In our conversations, Rodney presses me over and over to tell him my religious preference, even when I tell him I am agnostic. “There is nothing that you like more than the other, nothing stands out more than the other to you?” he persists. I tell him that if I had to pick, I would choose Quakers or Buddhists. “I heard about Buddhism,” he says, “but I do not know much about them. Anytime we think about Buddhism, we think of some kind of chubby guy, Buddha.” I tell him a bit about nonviolence and non-attachment, and how even Buddha’s teachings would not constitute a dogma because the idea is to question all things. After considering for a long time, he says, “Yeah, that is good, about letting go of things of the world. We need stuff though.” He is obviously interested, yet the seminary has little material that would give him the sense of the teachings of other religions, their history, or how they are practiced today.

God in Captivity is available now online and in bookstores.

Excerpted from God in Captivity: The Rise of Faith-Based Ministries in the Age of Mass Incarceration by Tanya Erzen (Beacon Press, 2017). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

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