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ASC1, Welfare officer, Nigerian Correctional Service, Ibara Abeokuta Custodial Centre, Abeokuta, Ogun State.

18th June 2020.


Throughout the long history of corrections, religion has 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 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 counselling 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.

The influence and practice of religion in the correctional setting is as old as the history of prisons

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 and the Quran stories of such prisoners include Joseph is also known as Yusuf 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 Easter time, 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.

The forced solitary confinement was thought to serve the repenting purpose. 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 of help in the correction.

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 not be.

Legal Issues

Correctional institutions must provide inmates with certain legal rights concerning the practice of religion. Among these rights are the opportunities 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.

Prison officials must make every effort to treat members of all religious groups equally unless they can demonstrate reasonableness to do otherwise.

Chaplaincy, Religious Groups and Practices

Most of the direct influence of religion on inmates’ reformation 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 1400s when the religious Order of Misericordia was founded to provide assistance and consolation to those condemned to death. They were responsible for visiting inmates, providing services and sermons under the supervision of Social Workers. To many, the Chaplains were often naïve and easily manipulated by the inmates, sometimes prone to trafficking.’?

The Chaplain 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. 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.

The specific kinds of religious groups vary from prison-to-prison and state-to-state. Correctional institutions provide support for at least some of the traditional faith groups–Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox and Muslim.

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. Custodial Centers for short term inmates and those awaiting trial or transfer may limit religious practice to a single service for all denominations called an ecumenical service or even “cell-by-cell” ministry whereby the Chaplains from the different denominations visit inmates individually as requested or approved. 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 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 etc…The number and type of seminars vary depending on the location of the Correctional Centers and the interest of volunteers and inmates.

Although Correctional Centers generally do not allow religious items beyond religious writings, Bibles and Quran. 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 etc…

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 practical reasons.

In some cases, inmates are simply practising their faith by worshipping God or a higher power. Inmates either grew up practising 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 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 practising 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 and Condemned Convicts.

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 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 behaviour. 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 other inmates 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 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 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. These acts are called trafficking.

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 other gift items, books, and musical instruments. For example, during many of the special religious programs, soft drinks and doughnuts are supplied for inmates who attend religious services. In addition, certain religious groups can receive special food privileges during certain religious celebrations. For example, Muslims are often allowed a special diet during Ramadan. All inmates can receive these goods and privileges if they attend certain religious services or show minimal interest in being a member of a specific religious group. The resources gained from religious involvement can also include individual favours from the faith representatives and payment of Fines. More specifically, the faith representative can sometimes provide written recommendations for Amnesty or non-custodial.

Religion often used as a confidence trick

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” to swindle. It is believed that inmates hope the welfare officers will view their religious practice as an attempt to become moral, pro-social, and law-abiding citizens. The result will be early release as in form of Amnesty, non Custodial etc…

Inmates’ opinions of religion in Correctional Centers are quite diverse. Some believe, like the correctional officers, that inmates practice religion while in prison only to influence the Chaplain or Correctional authorities for improved living conditions while incarcerated or for a positive recommendation for Amnesty. Others feel that fellow inmates participate in religious programs for a “psychological crutch”. These sceptics 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 a 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 behaviour 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, the 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.


Religion has long been associated with the 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. However, the right practises of religion must not interfere with the security of the institution.

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 those 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.

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 a 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 See Less.

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