Do prisoners with religious beliefs and behaviours experience their incarceration differently? How does their emotional state affect the likelihood of rehabilitation, or repeat offences?
Professors Sung Joon Jang and Byron R. Johnson at the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University, examine the effects of religion on offenders in the South African correctional system.
Hello, and welcome to ResearchPod. Thanks for joining us today. In this episode, we’ll be looking at the research of Sung Joon Jang and colleagues that examines whether religion has a positive effect on the emotional wellbeing of offenders held in correctional centres in South Africa. The researchers also investigated, if a positive effect is found, whether religiosity has more of a salutary impact on female than male offenders.
It is well understood that imprisonment leads to a negative emotional state in many men and women alike; guilt, hopelessness, loss of meaning and purpose in life, anger, frustration, depression and anxiety are all reported as common amongst prisoners. These negative emotions and the poor state of mental health support in many facilities leads to harmful behaviour towards both others (aggression and violence) and the self (self-harm and suicide). This behaviour, in turn, has its undesirable financial and social consequences; increased staffing needs, litigation and higher rates of reoffending. It is clear, then, that research into the improvement of the mental health of prisoners is valuable for many reasons; the prisoners themselves, the institutions that house them and the general public stand to benefit from a better understanding of what might have a positive impact on offenders’ wellbeing.
Firstly we will look at why imprisonment specifically has a negative impact on people’s mental state. It has been noted that confinement effectively results in the removal of positive stimuli and presentation of negative stimuli for offenders; this has been further detailed and broken down by criminologists into the following five main ‘pains of imprisonment’: loss of liberty, deprivation of goods and services, frustration of sexual desire, deprivation of autonomy and deprivation of security.
Upon entrance to a correctional facility, offenders are stripped of not just their clothing and belongings, but also many social supports they probably took for granted in the outside world. This, as well as the shame and guilt associated with punishment, can result in inmates experiencing an existential crisis; a loss of sense of self and meaning in life. It is not uncommon for prisoners to look for ways to cope with this, adopting prison ‘customs’ into their lives. Unfortunately, much of this prison culture is built around the opposition of authority and is anti-institution, manifesting itself as deviant behaviour. In addition, studies have repeatedly shown that the emotional coping skills of offenders are limited and often deviant in nature, leading to poor mental health, self-harm and suicide.
Religion is one of a very few sources of ‘prosocial coping’ available to inmates. Religion helps prisoners come to terms with their shame and guilt through the principle of forgiveness, helps them rediscover their ‘purpose’ through a newfound understanding of the meaning of life, helps them address their loss of freedom via a personal sense of peace, as well as find support amongst other religious people both within and outside of the institution. Much research has been carried out on the effect of religion on mental health in the general population, with conclusions always broadly similar; religiosity is inversely related to depression and suicide and positively associated with emotional wellbeing.
Although previous research has confirmed that religion can specifically help prisoners cope with the stress of confinement, there is little to nothing in the criminology literature on why this might be the case. Answering this question is important because the positive association between religion and inmates’ emotional wellbeing could be simply spurious unless it can be theoretically explained and empirically verified. Building on previous work from 2018, Prof Sung Joon Jang of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University hopes to fill this gap by focusing his team’s research on two particular points: that the outcome of an inmate’s religiosity or involvement in religious activities could result in either an improved sense of meaning and purpose in life, and/or the practice of personal virtues and prosocial characteristics such a forgiveness, gratitude and self-control.
As a secondary hypothesis, they also posited the idea that female prisoners might find religion’s effect on their sense of purpose and personal virtues to be stronger than on males, a prediction based on prior research that has shown religion to be more influential on women than men in general. To test their hypotheses, the researchers analysed data collected from surveys completed by offenders at institutions in South Africa.
South Africa does not have ‘high’ governmental restrictions on religion, or exhibit any social hostilities towards particular religions. The practice of religion in the country is a public norm and is fairly diverse, although Christianity is the most dominant. The religious rights of inmates are defined by legislation as follows: freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief and opinion; any inmate may attend religious services and meetings held in the prison voluntarily and may have in his or her possession religious literature; where practicable, places of worship must be provided at every prison for inmates of all religious denominations; and no inmate may be compelled to attend religious services or meetings or to take part in religious practices. As of March 2019, there were nearly 163,000 offenders held in correctional facilities in South Africa, and of those, 87% participated in religious programmes whilst imprisoned between 2016 and 2017.
The diversity of the religious affiliation of prisoners should be noted, with Christianity, African traditional religion, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, and the Rastafarian faith all represented. The research team noted that South African institutions are actually more supportive of inmate participation in religious activities that other prison systems such as that in the more commonly studied United States.
Jang and colleagues collected the data to test their hypotheses by conducting surveys at four different correctional facilities in the country. A total of 425 offenders took part; 245 male and 180 female prisoners. The survey measured negative emotions, religiosity, ‘presence of meaning’, ‘search for meaning’, forgiveness, gratitude and self-control, as well as recording sociodemographic characteristics including age, nationality, sex, marital status and religious affiliation. The data gathered was then analysed.
The data analysis showed that, as predicted, inmate religiosity was positively related to a search for and presence of purpose and meaning in life and virtuous characteristics, which then equally resulted in lower levels of negative emotional states. Offenders engaging in religion and religious activities were less likely to feel angry, frustrated, depressed, anxious or purposeless than their non-religious counterparts. The researchers also noted that those prisoners who reported a ‘search for meaning’ but who had not found it yet were more likely to report the negative emotional states. Interestingly the data also suggested, however, that religiosity had similar existential and virtuous effects on emotional wellbeing among male and female offenders in South Africa (rather than being more impactful on female prisoners as hypothesised).
With this data, Jang and colleagues have built on their previous research in this area in three ways. Firstly they found out that an inmate’s religiosity is inversely related to negative emotional states via their sense of meaning and purpose and virtuous characteristics. Secondly they identified that there was no statistically significant difference in the effect of religion on emotional wellbeing between male and female offenders. Thirdly, most previous criminological research into religion has been carried out in Western countries; consistency between the results in those studies (including Jang and colleagues’ 2018 research in the United States) means that it is now possible to suggest that the salutary effect of religion on emotional wellbeing among prisoners may be cross-culturally applicable.
This research advances the field of ‘criminology of religion’ by exploring hitherto unexplored concepts, such as religiosity’s impact on meaning of life and virtues for imprisoned offenders. The discovery of the existential and virtuous effect religion has on inmates’ emotional wellbeing also supports a need for a shift in the way prisoners are viewed by scholars. Broadly, offenders need to be viewed as human. This study presents prisoners as existential and moral beings, demonstrating that their mental health is negatively affected by a lack of meaning in life or virtuous characteristics. Participation in religion can provide both of those things, leading to a reduction in deviant behaviour, such as misconduct in prison.
Religion offers offenders a transformation and a new identity, with which they can choose to live a more meaningful and virtuous life. In a practical sense, the conclusions of this study support the implementation and facilitation of religious programmes in prisons. Such programmes will benefit both the inmate and institution, as prisoners experience better emotional wellbeing and carry out fewer disruptive and negative actions. Looking beyond prison, inmates who have found meaning in their life are more likely to be self-motivated and experience successful rehabilitation.
By viewing prisoners as moral beings, prisons have a better chance of fostering virtue in inmates, be that through religious programmes or otherwise, and being transformative and restorative rather than destructive and damaging institutions.
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