American prisons house more than 1.5 million individuals, an increase of more than 380 percent since 1978. While crime rates across the country have shown an overarching decline since the 1990s, our corrections population has continued to increase and those sentenced to prison now receive longer terms of incarceration than we have seen since our country began to collect accurate data. Every year hundreds of thousands of returning neighbors rejoin our communities, facing practical and social challenges, often while still handicapped by poor education and lack of practical skills. Our current system is failing these individuals, with over three-quarters of those released from state prisons rearrested within just five years. As Christians, we are called to come alongside those returning to our communities and equip them to be successful upon reentry.
Before having an effective conversation on how to make prison culture more constructive, it’s important to first understand the importance of hierarchy within prison culture. Prisons are structured in a way similar to a traditional corporation, with a top-down command structure. At the top of this structure is a warden or superintendent who is responsible for all operations within the facility. Various deputy wardens or assistant superintendents report to this top executive, and each are assigned a different component of the prison environment to oversee (security, management, programs, etc.). Finally, correctional officers of various ranks, along with other staff responsible for the administrative, programming, and ministerial functions necessary to support the prison, conduct the day-to-day work within each facility. An effective prison environment requires that the entire reporting structure be committed to achieving a constructive environment that not only upholds accountability, but also seeks to achieve restoration.
When a person is incarcerated, it is vital to ensure that his or her experience is not merely punitive, but also restorative. The culture within prisons and jails should be constructive, providing avenues to earn back the trust of the community through character development and services addressing the underlying causes of criminal behavior. A constructive culture within prisons requires three basic elements: safe physical conditions, adequate opportunities to seek positive change, and minimal barriers to maintaining positive community relationships during incarceration. By providing individuals a constructive and dignified experience while they are incarcerated, we can ensure their success as productive members of their community when they return home.
Safety Within Prison Walls
While incarcerated, individuals may face major risks to their health and safety because of facility overcrowding or poor environmental conditions. Overcrowding is a problem in the federal, as well as almost 30 state, correctional systems. Individuals must be held accountable for their actions while they are incarcerated, but the physical conditions of prison facilities should respect the inherent dignity of every person. When we house individuals in prisons without adequate space to live, that fail to provide acceptable conditions for habitation, or that prevent much needed positive interaction with others, we undermine human dignity and the constructive nature of our prisons. Research reveals that neither high-security prisons nor imposing harsher conditions result in lower rates of recidivism. Rather, most studies conclude that such conditions actually result in the opposite, citing higher levels of post-release crime. Research clearly demonstrates that overcrowding results in higher levels of prison violence, recidivism, and parole violations.
Many individuals who are incarcerated are also at a high risk of sexual and physical abuse. Although many steps have been taken in recent years to reduce this type of violence in prisons, physical and sexual abuse are still prevalent. The most recent data reveals that thousands of individuals have died from suicide or homicide in state and federal prisons since 2001, and almost seventy thousand individuals will face sexual assault in prison each year. Implementing effective reforms or programming to ensure incarcerated individuals leave prison equipped to be productive citizens is useless if we do not first seek to remedy the basic safety concerns that they face in our correctional facilities. Individuals who are constantly worried about their immediate and future safety do not have the time or energy to seek positive changes in their skill set, character, or relationships.
Transformation through Opportunity
In order for individuals who are incarcerated to truly be restored as positively contributing citizens, our justice system must extend opportunities for them to take responsibility for the harm caused, make appropriate amends, and demonstrate a sincere intent to live a transformed life. Some of the biggest predictors of whether an individual will return to prison in the future have nothing to with the person he or she was upon entering prison, but rather the skills, personality, and character he or she has when exiting through the threshold of the prison gate.
Prison programming is a pivotal component in providing the crucial skills, education, and character development that will ensure the transformation of individuals who are incarcerated. Prison programming can include a variety of approaches, including education and workforce development, employment programs, life skills and family management classes, mental health and substance abuse support, and various types of religious programming. These various types of programming have been shown to reduce recidivism, save taxpayer expenditures, increase future employment of returning neighbors, and decrease rule violations in prison. For example, mental health support reduces misconduct incidents in prison by 22 percent, holistic faith-based programming results in a 40 percent reduction in reincarceration, and educational programming increases post-release employment by 13 percent. By implementing various types of proven effective programming in correctional facilities, officials can ensure safer prisons and communities and decrease the burden placed on taxpayers to support our growing correctional system.
Fostering Positive Relationships
Every individual who is incarcerated has some combination of children, family, and friends that they desire to continue relationships with while in prison. There are over 2.7 million children with parents in prison in America, and this number has increased by five times since 1980. Incarceration makes it exceptionally difficult for individuals to maintain healthy relationships with those who will be their support system when they return home. This is detrimental to our society as a whole, as continued relationships with family members and positive community influences have been shown to reduce recidivism, decrease prison violence, and prevent the intergenerational cycle of incarceration. By ensuring that prison visitation policies prioritize maintaining relationships between individuals who are incarcerated and their children, family, and friends, people in prison can strengthen family ties and build community networks that they can call upon for support upon leaving prison.
Be a Part of Restoration
As Christians, we are called in Matthew to visit those in prison; however, our call to engage with the justice system extends far beyond this particular charge given by Jesus. We must participate in creating and ensuring a constructive culture within our corrections system. The Biblical model for justice requires that punishment not only restore the harmed party but also instruct the responsible party on proper behavior for the future.
We as the Church have the unique opportunity to ensure a constructive prison culture in a variety of ways. For many years, the Church has sought to improve prison culture by impacting a small part of the prison population through weekly Bible studies or single day evangelism events. However, our call to seek justice that restores does not end with these types of programs. While there are many ways we as Christians can be involved in helping to secure a justice system that restores, we have an unparalleled opportunity to impact the culture of our prisons today in three specific ways that are not immediately apparent to most individuals in the church today.
First, Christians should advocate for justice reforms that seek to create a prison environments that model the attitudes, behaviors, and lifestyles that are conducive to a productive position in our communities. Proverbs encourages us to “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves.” Those in our justice system are frequently relegated to the position of an amorphous “other” group, but as Christians, we know that they have the same inherent God-given dignity as any other individual. While God values justice, true justice is not only retributive but also emphasizes redemption, restoration, and reformation. We as Christians must embrace our duty to seek a justice system that restores by influencing our governmental and thought leaders through advocacy.
Second, Christians should seek to join the ranks of the tens of thousands of individuals who work in corrections across the country. By working in this industry as wardens, officers, counselors, or support staff, we can personally demonstrate a respect for the human dignity of every person and show the love of Christ by the way we treat those who are incarcerated. By modeling the behavior and character we hope to see reflected in our broader culture, we can begin to change the culture of prisons from the inside out.
Prison Fellowship’s Warden Exchange program is just one example of how Christians are seeking to bring restorative change to correctional facilities across the country. This program seeks to equip wardens to be transformational leaders in their facilities by providing intensive training in best practices from some of the brightest thought leaders in criminal justice, law, business, and education. Through this program, Prison Fellowship seeks to assist wardens in building safe, constructive, and rehabilitative environments in their correctional facilities. This program equips these wardens to be the change they hope to see in the individuals held in their correctional facilities.
Lastly, Christians should invest in non-profits who are seeking to make a tangible change in our justice system with their prayers, time, and donations. There are many great organizations like Prison Fellowship and the Prison Entrepreneurship Program helping those who are incarcerated by equipping them to realize their God-given potential and achieve restoration upon their reentry into their communities. By partnering with experts inside these organizations who are implementing evidence-based solutions, we as Christians can not only reach those who are incarcerated with the restoring message of the Gospel, but also can provide them with the tangible skills they need to be successful.
By providing individuals with a constructive and dignified experience while they are incarcerated, we can increase the likelihood of their success as productive members of their community upon reentry. Our justice system can be one that both recognizes human dignity and promotes accountability for the responsible party. To do so, we must ensure that the conditions of confinement are appropriate, sufficient amounts of programming are provided, and individuals are afforded the opportunity to continue positive relationships with their family and friends outside of prison. The church has the unique call and an unparalleled opportunity to be a part of creating a constructive culture within our prisons by advocating for positive reforms and seeking to change the culture from the inside out.
-Jeremiah Mosteller is a member of the advocacy and public policy team at Prison Fellowship where he manages the organization's advocacy initiatives. His research and writing focuses on proportional punishment, constructive culture, and second chances in our justice system.