Recidivism and Reform: Competing Views

Last week the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) reported that for the second straight year violent crime was on the rise in the United States. Violent offenses such as murder and robbery were up 3.7 percent in the first half of 2006, compared to the first six months of the previous year.

At the same time that violent crime is increasing, several high-profile court cases have challenged the involvement of religious, specifically Christian, groups in the reform of criminals. In June, a federal judge in Iowa ruled that the reduction of recidivism — the return of ex-cons to prison after the commission of new crimes — is a "state function," and therefore anyone working to combat recidivism is by definition a "state actor."

This judgment directly affects the work of InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI), a ministry associated with Prison Fellowship, because it had contracted with the State of Iowa "to reduce recidivism among Iowa inmates" (The case is currently on appeal by IFI).

Later in July, IFI's work at England's Dartmoor prison was shut down because the British Prison Service decided that IFI's Christian foundation did not "fit in with the multi-faith agenda." Christianity's exclusive truth claims do not cohere well with the British directive's pluralist vision that IFI "should be teaching a bit of every religion."

 That fact that IFI's programs are strictly voluntary does not seem to matter to its opponents. Neither do the results. The warden at Iowa's Newton facility, Terry Mapes, spoke of the benefits of IFI's work to the prison society. "It's the pro-social behavior," he said. "It is the thing that we hope [in] corrections will make a difference."

In these disputes there are at play two basic views of the role of church and state in the administration of criminal punishment and behavioral reform. Under the first view, as articulated by the federal judge in Iowa, the task of prisoner rehabilitation is "traditionally and exclusively reserved to the state." Under the second view, there is a kind of division of labor, by which it is the government's task to administer retributive justice, while institutions of civil society, particularly the church, seek the reform of morals and character in pursuit of restorative justice (the restoration of broken and fractured relationships).

The ideological father of the first position is the eighteenth-century British utilitarian Jeremy Bentham. In a series of letters Bentham espoused the creation of the "panopticon" (literally, meaning "all-seeing"), a plan for an institution where prisoners could be kept under constant surveillance by authorities, giving the illusion of "the apparent omnipresence of the inspector." Through the use of this principle, Bentham bragged, his plan would realize the following grand achievements: "Morals reformed — health preserved — industry invigorated instruction diffused — public burdens lightened — Economy seated, as it were, upon a rock — the gordian knot of the Poor-Laws are not cut, but untied — all by a simple idea in Architecture!"

The ideal for Bentham was the extreme use of sequestration and solitude, so as to break down the prisoners' anti-social inclinations. A series of cells in concentric circles around a central observation area would allow continuous observation of the prisoners, each in their individual cells. In this way there would be two perspectives in the prison: "to the keeper, a multitude, though not a crowd; to themselves, they are solitary and sequestered individuals."

The opposite view of the relationship between retribution and reform, which lies at the heart of prison ministries like IFI, sees the change of outward behavior as part and parcel of the renewal of inner realities. At the core of the principle of the separation of church and state in the United States is the recognition of the different spheres of authority enjoyed by each institution. The state must confine itself to administration of public justice in the realm of external morality. The church, by contrast, exercises authority over spiritual realities, and this is only possible where the freedom of conscience is protected from external coercion.

Comprehensive ministry to the marginalized in society is at the core of the Christian mission. Jesus, in speaking of the activities of the righteous, declares, "I was in prison and you came to visit Me" (Mt 25:36 NIV). Secular governments should neither infringe on the exercise of religious practice, which includes ministry to prisoners, nor deny the social benefits of spiritual and internal renewal. By preserving a place for a vigorous and healthy church, the state will be furthering its own best interests.

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  • Guest

    Of a related note . . .

    I have been, due to a strange youth, widowed grief, etc., to several counselors when in my late thirties and into my forties. It seemed that their only effectual outcomes over any therapeutic course was nearly strictly behavioral. Then again, as one counselor put it, ‘it is about all I can offer you since you really don’t believe I can offer anything else.’

    From nearly the first of counselors, and as I progressed, I did become immune to any inanities that psych types offer. But, the behavioral aspects had positive results.

    Hence, the various prison ministries which in effect look to first give a person reflection on his past flawed actions (sins; felonies) that he might seek forgiveness and renewal, and a focus on future chances to offer loving actions instead may be the only prison ‘programs’ that have any chance of working. They emphasize behavioral maturity as being the one chance to make incarceration work the once and never need be returned to.

    (And, am I to believe that the great numbers of Muslim coverts coming out of prisons has nothing to do with a ministry at least religiously similar to the Christian Prison Fellowship? More ‘PC’ in action, perhaps?)

    I remain your obedient servant, but God’s first,

    Pristinus Sapienter

    (wljewell or …