Academic journal article Social Justice

Confronting Christian Penal Charity: Neoliberalism and the Rebirth of Religious Penitentiaries

Academic journal article Social Justice

Confronting Christian Penal Charity: Neoliberalism and the Rebirth of Religious Penitentiaries

Article excerpt

This article addresses the rise of Christian seminary programs in US prisons as a function of penal regime change in late-modern corrections. The article documents the neoliberal roots of faith-based programming in US prisons, featuring increased reliance upon religious volunteerism as a structural charity in correctional budgeting. Federal revocation of Pell Grant eligibility for convicted felons in 1994 has produced a de facto monopoly of Christian educators promulgating an exclusively sectarian framing of offender rehabilitation. Although faith-based programming can offer effective counternarratives to punitive justice that dramatically improve the well-being of prisoners who freely volunteer, overreliance upon Christian instruction in US prisons fosters a coercively sectarian framing of rehabilitation and a newly privatized mechanism for inmate education.

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When historians talk of the cultural forces which have influenced penal policy, the forces which they have in mind are most often religion and humanitarianism. (Garland 1990, 203)

Efforts to reduce taxpayer spending on prisons have featured expanded use of private for-profit corporations as well as increased use of voluntary service organizations, particularly faith-based programs seeking offenders' self-transformation (Hannah-Moffat 2000). In an effort to end the government monopoly on delivery of services in criminal justice, a new level of both market competition and structural charity has become an increasingly commonplace feature of correctional budgeting (see Hackworth 2012, 45-46; Hallett 2006; Tomczak 2016). In an as yet little-explored dimension of carceral devolution, the trend of privately funded Christian seminaries being planted in US prisons reflects a growing prominence of religious neoliberalism in US corrections (see Hackworth 2012, Hallett et al. 2016, Miller 2014). Due to widespread reliance by corrections officials upon faith-based charities to deliver cost-effective services to prisoners and ex-offenders, faith-based resources are increasingly the sole or best-resourced programs available for inmates (Erzen 2017, Hackworth 2012, Sullivan 2009, Tomczak 2016).

Federal revocation of Pell Grant eligibility for convicted felons in 1994 has produced a market opportunity for enrollment growth among Christian education service providers sponsoring collegiate degree programs inside US prisons, wherein public officials often simultaneously employ or endorse an exclusively sectarian framing of offender rehabilitation. (1) Seminaries frequently use their prison course offerings for fundraising and self-promotion purposes. In what is fast becoming a nationwide movement, Christian seminary programs are now operating in 17 states, often providing the only or largest tuition-assisted access to collegiate-level education available to prisoners at the institutions in which they are housed. This article offers the first broad and systematic exploration of collegiate-level religious education and penal regime change involving multiple US prison seminaries (for earlier research, see Duwe et al. 2015; Hallett et al. 2016, 2017,2019; Jang et al. 2017).

Penal Regime Change and the American Penitentiary

The first religiously inscribed penitentiary in the United States comprised a pod of experimental cells built within the confines of the Walnut Street Jail over two centuries ago. (2) Since then, religious volunteers have continuously been active in jails and prisons, more often than not finding themselves in conflict with prison administrators and often marginalized by wardens and chaplains (Graber 2013, Sundt & Cullen 1998). As Jennifer Graber (2013, 3) notes in her history of New York's Auburn Penitentiary, "the prison's first decades show that just as the nation began to reform its criminal justice system and build institutions for reformative incarceration, citizens had no clear sense of how religious actors might contribute to that process. …

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