Faith and Incarceration

Courtesy of ABC News, we have a report on a faith-based prison in Florida.

Florida is where nearly half of all felons released end up back in prison within five years. The state's prison system doesn't seem the most likely to enlighten its inmates.

In December 2003, Gov. Jeb Bush converted the medium-security Lawtey Correctional Institution into the nation's first entirely faith-based prison.

The governor put his plan into motion by stating "people of all faith, people who believe in a higher power are compelled to take actions in their lives that improve their chances of living a wholesome life that is crime-free."

At Lawtey, 28 different religions are represented — Christianity, Orthodox Judaism, Wicca, Scientology.


Since Gov. Bush oversaw the conversion of Lawtey, Florida's Department of Corrections has opened two more faith- and character-based prisons — one for inmates serving long sentences and another that's exclusively for women.

The state plans to open as many as 30 more. The state believes that these kinds of programs mean less disciplinary action and lower recidivism, but no scientific study has proved anything of that nature.

There are a lot of interesting thing to talk about here, and I'm going to ignore a lot of them for now (though feel free to raise issues in comments). Obviously there are constitutional issues, fairness issues, broad questions of compulsive rehabilitation, and pragmatic questions of how effective this scheme actually is. The report is quite brief and maddeningly short on details about how the prison actually works; are prisoners forced into services? Are there provisions for the non-believing? How, exactly, is this prison run, and how is it different from the average Florida prison? The article says nothing other than that there are a lot of religions represented and that this prison somehow involves more religion than other prisons.

These are all excellent topics for discussion, but they aren't what I'm most interested in here. What's notable about this scheme is that it harkens back to the original concept of incarceration in the United States.

Incarceration as a form of criminal punishment is actually a fairly new phenomenon in the world, and one that was first widely implemented in the early Republican period in the United States. Incarceration was pretty rare before then. There were jails, to be sure, but they were used mostly for holding the accused between arrest and trial, and for holding the convicted between trial and punishment. They were temporary holding cells only. Punishments in the colonial days and earlier tended to involve a combination of fines, public humiliation, corporal punishment, and the death penalty. Further, all of these punishments were highly public. This served two purposes: public humiliation shamed the criminal into behaving well, and public punishment demonstrated the power of the government to the public at large, in theory scaring them straight.

With the birth of the Republic came a uniquely Republican form of punishment: the loss of freedom. Americans value their liberty above all else, so we shall punish the criminal by taking his liberty away from him. This led to the construction of the first modern prisons, designed to house large numbers of inmates and accomodate a new form of punishment: long term incarceration.

The other major shift between the old style of punishment and incarceration-oriented punishment was in the religious aspect. The old style of punishment involved an elaborate ritual of penitence and absolution. It is well known that the death penalty applied to a great deal more crimes in the colonial period than it does now, and that the death penalty was far more commonly applied. What is less well known is that clemency was also far more common in those days. Those condemned to die would write elaborate confessions (often published for the public to read, and many times copied and handed out at the execution), explaining where they went wrong in life, taking responsibility for their sins, resolving to devote themselves to a life of virtue, and begging for forgiveness from the community and, particularly, the governor. The prisoner would go through the entire ceremony of the public execution up until the last second, at which point, if clemency was granted, the noose would be removed and he would be told he could go free. I don't have statistics with me now, but I believe that the majority of death penalties in the colonial period were commuted in this manner. I could be wrong, however, so don't take that as gospel.

There was a shift in this view in the period of the early Republic. The emphasis on clemency of the executive had a rather monarchical character; the ritual made it seem as though the executive was acting as God's surrogate. We have a sinner who is to face eternal punishment, and, if the governor/God decides that the sinner has a truly penitent soul, the governer grants absolution for the criminal's sins. Throw in the background of Divine Right of Kings political theory, and you can see why this relationship between governor and governed would be uncomfortable in the United States.

In the early Republic, the idea was that we put our faith in The People, not in some omnipotent sovereign. The citizen, in this view, is basically good and moral, intelligent and capable of self-governance. For this, they are given the privilege of liberty. Sometimes, of course, they go astray, and in those cases their liberty must be restrained until they can set themselves right again. The emphasis in imprisonment was on self-correction. Prisoners were put in solitary confinement to meditate upon their life and upon God, and to see how they had gone astray. They were given some make-work and basic training in skills, on the theory that learning a trade was a major element in being a productive person of moral worth. And they were given Bibles, that they might read them and learn from them lessons of how to live rightly.

It's at this point that punishment shifted from public to a private. Punishment was no longer about shame; rather, it was about an internal moral journey, to be made by each prisoner for himself. They were handed the tools of moral redemption, locked in a room with them, and left to their own devices to reform themselves. It is from this view of punishment as a means of personal redemption that we get the term Penitentiary, meaning a house for penitence.

Without going into the details of the further evolution of the American penal system, things didn't work out so well at these early faith-based prisons. The strict solitary confinement and utter lack of human contact caused a lot of prisoners to lose their grip on sanity. Prisoners were also not as inclined to reform themselves on their own as the prison theoreticians would have hoped. There was a lot of small-scale rebellion, which led to corporal punishments and other means of keeping prisoners in line. Further, it's not very economical to have a system of prisons with elaborate solitary confinement schemes; in short order the prisons became over-crowded and solitary confinement was abandoned.

These are all problems with the peculiar early Republican scheme of penitentiaries, and says nothing about the current faith-based prisons in Jeb Bush's Florida. Nonetheless, it is interesting to note that this new scheme is a hearkening back to the early days of incarceration.

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This page contains a single entry by Zach published on January 29, 2006 3:58 PM.

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