Prisoners who come under religious influence while they're behind the walls do better once they're back on the outside and in society than those who lack the religious influence, researchers say.
The findings of the first-of-its-kind study on the rehabilitative effect of religion on prisoners could have wide implications for the prison system, although more study is needed, the researchers say.
"The results are phenomenal," said John Gartner of Baltimore, a clinical psychologist who headed the five-member research team. "There haven't been any findings of effectiveness that were this strong."
It was found that prisoners who received religious instruction while in prison had a lower rate of recidivism - return to crime - after being freed than did those who had no such instruction.
Results show that religion "may be a powerful, and until now neglected, method of rehabilitation," the report says, adding that the previous scant clues about it make the results very encouraging...
"Researchers usually ignore religion," Gartner said in an interview. "They look at all aspects of persons, but religion is a gap. It's a blind spot in the social sciences, not even consistent with the spirit of science."
Considering the extent of prison ministries, the report said, "it is ironic that religious factors have been largely ignored" in studies on factors that might affect a prisoner's chances for successful rehabilitation.
While results of the new study were positive, Gartner stressed that his team's report adds: "It is important to remember that research conclusions are not determined by one particular study. This is especially so when a new area of research is opening up..."
The group's study involved 190 prisoners who between 1975 and 1979 had taken part in Christian discipleship training, and a similar number who had not. The inmates involved were matched by age, race, gender and other factors. Both groups had been released from prison eight to fourteen years prior to the study.
It found that the religion-trained ones had an 11 percentage point lower recidivism rate than the control group. Forty percent of the religion-schooled group committed new offenses, while 51 percent of the others did so.
The religiously trained group also had a longer crime-free period following release, and when they did commit new crimes, the crimes were less severe compared to past offenses. The control group had increased crime-severity.
The recidivism rate for women who took religious training was even lower, only 19 percent, compared to 47 percent among the control group of women. Among men only, the differential was only seven points...
The study is the first part of a three-year project, a second phase of which is now going on among prisoners in NY state, including expanded, detailed scrutiny of the effect of religion on recidivism.
Findings of the first study demonstrate that the "potentially beneficial relationship between religious involvement and criminal rehabilitation is an under-researched relationship" in need of further study, the report says...
The few other studies that touched on religion noted only denominational variables, thus leaving the field unexplored.
"No one before had ever looked at the effect of religion on recidivism," Gartner said. "I find that quite amazing."
A recent report by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics has revealed some startling information. The total number of state and federal prisoners more than doubled in this nation between 1985 and 1996! Last year alone the prison population expanded by about 55,900 inmates, reaching a record 1,182,000 at year's end. By late 1996, state prisons, which hold the majority of convicts, were operating 16% to 24% over their capacity. Federal prisons were even worse, with a rate of 25%!
Therefore, despite the construction of many new facilities, overcrowding is still a persistent dilemma. It is also very dangerous! For as incarceration continues to rise and budgets are shrinking, a situation is created that leads to prison understaffing. Not surprisingly, this makes convict escapes easier. It can also cause riots which result in bloodshed and hostage taking. And overcrowding also leads to the early release of dangerous criminals who frequently commit new offenses!
As a result, tax money that could have gone toward better schools, hospitals, parks, and libraries is spent on law enforcement, court costs, incarceration, and the other expenses involved in crime prevention. For example, in fiscal 1992, Federal, State, and local governments spent $94 billion for civil and criminal justice, a 59% increase over 1987. In the same year, State and local governments combined spent 85.5% of all justice dollars; the Federal Government spent the rest.
Recidivism also clogs up the courts, causing long delays in criminal proceedings and civil litigation. It overburdens prosecutors, public defenders, and supporting agencies. This increases the likelihood of serious mistakes in the handling of evidence. All of this creates a general tension & dissatisfaction in society, which can lead to frustration, causing anger that results in even more crime.
In fact, one of the primary causes of overcrowding is recidivism. Statistics indicate that 30.9% of all paroles are revoked. Although admissions are still rising, statistician Allen J. Beck, co-author of the bureau's study "Prisoners in 1996," noted that "fewer are coming directly from court convictions and more are returning as parole violators from unsuccessful community supervision.
"There's also an alarming trend. The highest rate of recidivism, 46.5%, takes place among juveniles under the age of eighteen! Of this group, 10.4% are returned to prison for homicide, 18.8% for robbery, and 13% for assault. New York is about average for the nation with a recidivism rate of 30.7%. California has the highest with 54.4% and Texas has a recidivism rate of 45.7%.
However, despite the dismal reality of government statistics, we at Bible Believers Fellowship, Inc. have a far more positive view, for we see what works, and what doesn't. It is assumed that the criminal commits crime due to some social dysfunction or insanity. Yet it is our contention that the offender does not have a problem with his mind, he has a problem with his heart. It is that part of his being, his very soul, that we strive to reach as we minister in the name of Jesus Christ in prisons nationwide.
A report that was prepared by the Family Research Council, and written by Robert L. Maginnis, appeared on the Internet. It quoted Todd Clear, a Rutgers University criminologist, who stated, "Religious programming is the single most common form of institutional program for inmate management and rehabilitation."
A 1992 Rutgers University study was also sited. It found that prisoners often seek God to cope with inmate life, which is marked by depression, guilt, and self-contempt. Todd Clear, who did the research, found that highly religious inmates have lower rates of depression and commit fewer disciplinary infractions than other inmates.
This was confirmed by Charles Adkins, who is also quoted in the report. Adkins, an Indiana state prison official, says that religion is one of several rehabilitation avenues, but it's the only approach that addresses the root problem, a moral crisis inside the inmate.
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