I Was In Prison, and Ye Visited Me Not


New at Reason: Faith-based prison ministry is private, cost-effective, and largely successful, so what could be wrong with it? Kerry Howley experiences Chuck Colson's InnerChange.

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  1. Inclined to agree with you, Shady, but I suppose some of those prisioners might define ‘higher power’ as the gov’t that put them there. Who defines such things anyway? 😉

    All other things being equal, even as an athiest I’d probably rather run into a group of fundamentalist christians in a dark alley than a group of non-believers, but really that’s just mostly based on a suspicion of the types of people that would hang out in dark alleys and which ones are more likely to cause you harm. If you were to actually run into a group of fundamentalist Christians in a dark alley, most likely it’s because the power went out during Bible study and they left through the back door. Religious belief is certainly no guarantee of goodness; the evil people in history have had no trouble, typically, twisting religious logic to support whatever they really wanted to do.

    One other nitpicky point: even if religious programs show a positive recidivism rate reduction compared to similar secular programs, that in and of itself doesn’t prove effectiveness, since they may attract prisioners who already have some religious belief and may feel more guilt and/or the need for redemption than the average prisioner. Indeed, even if the secular program results in less reduciton in recidivism than a religious program, if the secular program appeals to more prisioners on average, the net result in absolute number of repeat offenders could be lower for the secular program. Who knows? As the article says, very little evidence provided on whether or not any of them really work.

  2. You invoke that old adage that is supposed to get atheists to shut up:

    “If you ran into a bunch of teenage boys in a dark alley, wouldn’t you feel better if you found out they were just at a Bible study.”

    But, wouldn’t you also be relieved to here they just came back from philosophy group discussing secular humanism? Or any organized group that didn’t involve beating people in alleys?

  3. Wouldn’t the Fundamentalist Christians be better off spending their time dismantling all those dark alleys?

    As Cheez alludes, does this have any efect on the prisoners that are already devout Christians? Or are all those prisoners just liars? Just looking for the one true Christian… I guess he checked out a couple thousand years ago.

  4. I’ve been to philosophy group discussing secular humanism and it can be SCARY.

    No, but the reality is that hands down the most effective (if not simply the most wide-spread) group for helping alcoholics have been those that utilize the “Higher Power” model that AA uses. I thnk that ought to be weighed in considering the effectiveness of “faith based” recovery groups.

    Plus Boston rocks the hardest – big hair and all.

  5. I take issue with that, citizen… I’ve heard of studies supporting the effectiveness of Secular Sobriety, as better than AA, as well as studies that show that practical ‘stress management’ type classes that apparently are more common in Europe are more effective at reducing excessive drinking. (Sorry I can’t cite them off the top of my head, but then again, your claim is an unsupported assertion as well). Many people also quit or reduce their drinking on their own. Comparisions between these programs are all potentially flawed, because they appeal to different types of individuals. It can be a given that athiests would be repelled in general by higher power AA groups and thus may do better in ‘secular’ programs because it appeals to them. It’s kind of hard to make use of someone else’s mythology if you can’t really buy into it. Also, it’s reasonable to suppose that only the worst problem drinkers would resort to AA. Those with weaker demons can manage on their own, so comparisons between AA’s success rate and ‘self study’ aren’t necessarily good either.

    Bottom line, I think, is individuals have to decide for themselves whether or not a particular program helped them. For every strategy out there, you will find people that claim it did. We may never know which one works ‘best’, or perhaps different approaches are ‘best’ for different individuals.

    Good point, Shady. I’ve pretty much noticed from my personal experience that people willing to call themselves athiest or agnostic are usually thoughtful people who speculate about moral issues and feel as fervently about making the right decisions as any Christian true believer. It makes sense on the surface to suppose that one who does not fear retribution from God may not necessarily be as motivated to not commit wrong, but more often than not it is willful ignorance or lack of concern with things moral that determines a criminal mindset. Religious belief is so pervasive in our society that even many knowingly immoral people profess to believe in God and an afterlife.

    It is a safe bet to say that you’d be reasonably safe running into any group in the proverbial dark alley that subscribed to a religion or philosophy whose moral code didn’t condone beating strangers senseless in dark alleys. If you encounter people whose moral code is unknown, you have reason to fear if only for the fact that it is unlikely for groups of people to be hanging out in dark alleys anyway with good intentions in mind.

  6. Well, no kidding Jim. There are people that would be repelled in general by the idea of reforming at all.

    If a group of secular reformists wants to go into to prisons and talk to inmates about how they can better themselves through sheer will power, I say, “bring it on.” Seriously, I have no problem with that. But, at least until recently according to this article, groups like the one Colson runs were offering their services at their own expense. Private donations are a whole lot cheaper than professional clinical therapies. Do I think the government should organize and run reform groups for Jews, athiests, Zorastrians, pygmies and the Dutch? No, but those folks are welcome to do it themselves.

    I realize that there are philosophy groups of secular humanists that are simply benevolant. I know, I was in one in college. I just don’t get why folks here decry a clearly useful service that has been beneficial to society at large at little to no monetary cost.

  7. I decry it Citizen, because the discussion is centered on using public funds to subsidize these activities. I also question whether indoctrination into religious cults, big or small, is a benefit to society.

    What direction would this discussion take if we were considering the impact of a national, Saudi-funded campaign to reform inmates through Islam – which does a hell of a lot better job of extracting obedience than Christianity does.

    I doubt the White House, or any other of the usual suspects, would be advocating the elimination or secular treatment over that type of program.

    People should be free to follow whatever superstition they choose – dance naked around a tree if it makes you feel better – just don’t do it on my dime…

  8. There is a long tradition of religious groups ministering to prisoners. To the extent that it is voluntary and they are spending their own money, more power to ’em. I think the issue here is the state funding. If the state (in this case the federal government) were funding religious and non-religious groups equally, I don’t think many would have an issue with it either. But the example in the article showed that in at least one instance, the local government was choosing to cut funding for a private, secular councelling service in face of the free service provided by a religious group, financed by the fed gov’t’s faith based initiative. If more states follow suit (why wouldn’t they? Helps balance the budget deficit) then the only ‘reforms’ available to prisioners is fundamentally faith based. This somehow doesn’t jibe well with my separation of church and state bone.

    I suppose the existence of private charity prision services that are provided by free by religious groups (free to the taxpayer, that is) will always put some downward pressure on costs for private for-profit providers of similar services, but government funding of religious based services may further encourage the state prision systems to dispose of secular services altogether. And then, the government is paying for an ‘establishment of religion’ amongst prisioners.

  9. Once the respective Churches of Scientology and Satan begin seeking public funds for prison-outreach programs, the whole idea will be quietly scrapped.

  10. Ever since reading the book “Battle For The Mind”, this kind of stuff scares the shit out of me.

    Getting people not to kill and rape and rob is one thing; brainwashing them with one’s mythological delusions and ideology is quite another. Were it a strict choice between one or the other, I could see how one could struggle with which to choose – but it isn’t, because, surprise surprise, the science of human behavior has generally progressed enough to take an equal-or-better stab at adjusting people such that they can actually become more or less like everyone else (whether or not this is good shall be left as an excercise for the reader).

    If you would like to know how this whole brainwashing, conversion, and indoctrination thing works, I am aware of no better book than The Battle For The Mind. It disturbed me pretty damn thoroughly, and it was from the same book that I learned how interrogations (such as by the police) work, and how it is precisely (and physiologically) that people actually confess, and can come to believe, that they have committed all sorts of horrible crimes. Highly reccommended book, and really quite important, especially in this day and age of incredibly widespread ignorance.

  11. This already exists in prison populations in every state, it’s called Christian Identity and it is as popular among the Aryan Brotherhood as Islam is among the Black Guerrilla Family.

  12. I would rather brainwash them with religious materialism and fundementalist atheism. The last we need is violent convicts that follow the 10 commandments!

  13. Yeah, if they follow the 10 commandments, they might think that killing is against God, and then they’d probably line up at the airport when we got out, to spit in the faces of our troops and call them sinners.

    And of course, once they quit coveting so much, they will feel no need to keep up with the Jones’, feel no need to join the capitalist machine by getting a job, and they can simply live on the streets as freegans.

    But at least we’ll get the boon at the Goodwills when they give away all their worldly possessions and just let God provide like he does for the birdies.

    And in another plus, if they learn to turn the other cheek, their vitims can give them a right good kicking when they get out.

    I guess turning them all xians has it’s pluses and minuses.

  14. Religion makes good people, no?

    Percentage of Americans who believe in a higher power: 90%

    Percentage of American prisoners who believe in a higher power: 99%

  15. EMAIL: pamela_woodlake@yahoo.com
    URL: http://linux-shell-account.1st-host.org
    DATE: 01/20/2004 08:01:33
    If you would be unloved and forgotten, be reasonable.

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