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Faithful man walking: Science finds multiple benefits of religion for justice system

The prisoner looked out at those gathered for his execution and said, “Even though I lay on this gurney, seconds away from my death, I am at total peace. May the Lord Jesus Christ be with me. I am at peace.

When asked for his last words, another prisoner hearkened back to Gospel
accounts of the last words of Jesus on the cross: “Father, I commend my soul,
please take care and watch everybody I leave behind.”

At the very moment condemned prisoners could tell the world exactly what they
think, perhaps to rage at the dying of the light or to condemn the injustice of their
fate, more than six in ten turned to religious expressions, according to a study of the
last words uttered by 429 Texas inmates executed between 1982 to 2016.

In many of those cases, inmates used religious language to draw
closer to and gain comfort from God and to express love for others, including
praying for those they had wronged.

“I would like the chaplain to say a prayer, not only for me but for the victim’s
family,” one prisoner said before his impending death. The study was published in
The Sociological Quarterly.

The research is part of several new studies illustrating how faith may serve to
create a safer, more just society, from reducing recidivism and prison violence to
helping those seeking redemption find a peace that can transform their lives.

This is not to say that such efforts should be limited to people of one belief system,
researchers noted. But the studies support the value of faith-based partnerships in
areas from prison chaplains to re-entry programs sponsored by houses of worship.

“Our findings suggest that allowing inmates opportunity for religious practice and
expression may serve a powerful public good,” one group of researchers declared.

The faith difference

Several studies of religion and mental health have shown religious beliefs and
practices and positive relationships with a divine being can be powerful resources
helping people cope with major challenges such as illness and unemployment.

More recent research also suggests faith may help individuals deal with intense, lasting anger.

Scholars in the developing field of religion and criminal justice are finding
evidence that suggests practical ways faith may turn lives around even in the depths
of prison.

One of those new findings: Organized religion matters.

A study of 571 prisoners in Oregon found those who identified as religious and
spiritual were less likely to reoffend in the 13 years after an initial 2004 survey
than spiritual but not religious inmates. More frequent service attendance and the
greater likelihood of spending time in private thought and prayer partially
explained the differences.

The results highlight the importance of ensuring support for persons in prison in the process of making meaning, in addition to supporting the work of prisonchaplains and religious volunteers,” researchers reported in the Journal of Criminal Justice and Behavior.

The inmate’s image of God also makes a difference.

Prisoners with an image of an engaged God who cares about their well-being are more likely to have greater moral responsibility, more positive views of other inmates and a belief that life has a meaning and purpose, according to an analysis of a 2015 survey of 2249 inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, America’s largest maximum-security prison.

In contrast, prisoners who do not believe in God or believe in a distant judgmental
divinity are more likely to have higher levels of legal cynicism and a sense their
sentences were illegitimate.

In practice, religious belief in an engaged God has more than just personal
significance, researchers reported in the latest issue of the Review of Religious

That belief also has “potential rehabilitative value tending toward both a safer prison
environment for staff and inmates alike and a safer society as former inmates return to freedom.

Still, research finds, the challenge is also to change attitudes outside prison walls, where the culture is often more punishing than compassionate toward people who have committed a crime.

Reasons for hope

Religion has always played a role in prison life in the U.S.

The term “penitentiary” itself is derived from the words “penitent” and
“repentance,” with the understanding that clergy could lead inmates to repent of their sins.

And many religions urge compassion for those in prison. In the Gospel of Matthew,
Jesus equates the act of caring for those in prison with caring for him. And for
those who ignore this responsibility for those most in need, “Then they will go
away to eternal punishment.”

But it is hard for many people or congregations to put that into practice.

In the 1988 and 2006-2007 waves of the National Congregations Study, just 6
percent of houses of worship reported sponsoring or participating in programs targeting prisoners or people in trouble with the law and their families.

Projects such as prison re-entry programs housed in a religious setting may go a long way to getting past fear and distrust, two new studies measuring attitudes toward parolees found.

People indicated they would be more comfortable meeting parolees in a house of
worship, perhaps because of perceptions that ex-offenders at church are putting forth effort in self-improvement.

In turn, religious groups may provide ex-offenders with a caring and structured
support network, “which might lead to long-term relationships, employment and
leadership opportunities, and accountability,” researchers noted.

A common theme in the research is that recognizing the humanity of individual
prisoners may play a key role in influencing public policy.

For example, in the study of condemned inmates, researcher Ryan Smith of Baruch
College noted some have observed that capital punishment could not exist without
dehumanizing those executed.

The process itself of making more widely known the faith-filled last words of the
condemned could “have important implications for the fate of the death penalty
were it to become widely known—especially among religious people.”

Last words such as these from a Texas prisoner that resonate with the biblical account of the plea uttered by a dying Christ:

“God forgive them, God forgive them for they know not what they do. After all
these years my people are still lost in hatred and anger. Give them peace God for
people seeking revenge towards me. I love you guys, I love you guys. God give
them peace. I love you Chiquita. Peace, freedom, I’m ready.”

Image by Shane T. McCoy/United States Marshals Service, via Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]
Image by California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation, via Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]
Image by Larry Jacobsen, via Flickr [CC BY 2.0]

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