A topic that has been treated as an afterthought in many studies of imprisonment—religion—and an imprisoned group often seen as fringe—women—is the crux of a groundbreaking new book by a University of Maryland researcher on the deep spirituality that, perhaps unsurprisingly, is behind bars.
Associate Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice Rachel Ellis said, This place is called prison. It was published this month by University of California Press.
Based on nearly 500 hours of observations about prison life and interviews with incarcerated women, chaplains, volunteers, guards, correctional officers, and other members of an anonymous prison community, the book provides an up-close view of everyday religious practices. Just a fraction of the approximately 170,000 women imprisoned in the United States. It’s not a side issue, she said, but it’s often the main event.
“It has an impact on daily life even for women who don’t practice religion,” she said.
Most previous studies of the religious lives of prisoners have focused on men, particularly whether religious affiliation is associated with pro-social behavior and fewer rule infractions while in prison—and have generally found this to be the case. Some criminologists have also explored whether religious affiliation is associated with better outcomes once people are released, which is generally the case.
Ellis also found perceived benefits in her studies: common topics included ways in which religion helped women survive prison and deal with prison rules. One woman told her that prison – by God – saved her from the dangerous course of her life: “I realized he brought me here to get my attention.”
She also studied religious demographics and how affiliation affected the lives of prisoners. The majority Ellis visited in prison identified as members of the religious community: 63% Christian Protestants, 7% Catholic, 5% Sunni Muslim, 4.5% Lutherans, 3.5% Wiccans and 1.5% Jews; Other religious traditions and those who did not respond to the survey accounted for the remainder. Ellis has interviewed Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, and Jewish women, as well as those who identify as atheists or agnostics. Most of the people interviewed reported that their beliefs and their ability to gather to practice their religion had a positive impact on their experience in prison.
“Worship services are the only place where female prisoners are allowed to hug or hug each other,” Ellis said. “There is a real sense of community and support that comes from participating in religious programmes.”
Legally, prisoners should have one worship service and one Bible-based service per week, as well as accommodations for special religious requirements, such as dietary rules. In addition to these minimums, there are many additional opportunities and gifts offered by volunteers and charitable organizations, and to a large extent, Protestant Christians benefit, while those of other traditions or no religion are often excluded.
“They may receive a notebook or sugar cookies as part of their participation in Bible study,” Ellis said. “This creates a dynamic where some women get more, just because of the religious affiliation box they tick when they enter prison.”
Across religions, Ellis said that religious faith helped many of his interviewees not only accept harsh punishments, long sentences, or conditional denials, but also find meaning in difficult times.
“The common theme I heard was that I would be out in God’s time,” said Ellis. “Many of the women I spoke to believed that if they were denied parole or if they were serving a long sentence, it was because God was working for them in prison. They found a deep sense of purpose in this belief.”
One of the main findings: imprisoned women from religious communities are reconfiguring what it means to be imprisoned. In their minds and hearts, and in their faith communities, religious women, Ellis said, are rewriting the narrative of punishment and forgiveness.
“The prison system said to women, ‘You deserve punishment, you’re serving time for your crimes,'” Ellis said. “But what they hear of religious teachings is different. The prison chaplain said to me, ‘I look and see a woman God loves.'” I don’t see a criminal.”
Ellis hopes her book will help religious leaders and volunteers understand how important their work in prisons is to people of faith, particularly those from religious minority communities.
“What a change it would be if people of many faiths invested their time and resources in prison ministry,” Ellis said. “For example, even if there are only a few Catholic or Jewish women in the prison community, or only a few Muslim women, the lives of those women are still very important.”
the quote: Researcher’s New Book Reveals Spirituality as a Powerful Force in Women’s Prisons (2023, April 25), Retrieved April 25, 2023 from https://phys.org/news/2023-04-reveals-spirituality-powerful-women-prisons. html
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