Jailhouse Religion, Spiritual Transformation, and Long-Term Change

Byron Johnson

Testimonials of conversions like Murphy’s have been the subject of books, movies, and documentaries, and are readily accessible on the Internet. For example, The Cross and the Switchblade is a book that chronicles the dramatic conversion of former gang member Nicky Cruz in New York City during the 1950s.4 David Wilkerson, a minister, witnessed to Cruz and would be the key figure in his conversion to Christianity. Cruz would later become an evangelist, and he continues to share his testimony and preach around the world.5 Shortly after the conversation of Nicky Cruz, Wilkerson would found Teen Challenge, and over the next several decades it would become the world’s largest faith-based drug treatment program.

From convicted serial murderers Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer, to countless lesser-known people, there are many examples one could mention in a discussion of dramatic religious conversions or experi­ences of spiritual transformation among those who end up incarcerated.

The book Born Again details the conversion of Charles Colson, special counsel to President Richard Nixon from 1969 to 1973. The former Nixon aide was sentenced to prison in 1974 for his involvement in Watergate. Many observers, including those at publications like Newsweek and Time, dismissed his conversion as nothing more than an attempt at an early release from prison. But soon after his release from prison, Colson founded Prison Fellowship Ministries, a faith-based organization dedicated to serving prisoners, ex-prisoners, and their families. Colson still regularly ministers in prisons across the country and around the world, and Prison Fellowship has been active in prison ministry since 1976. Colson went on to receive the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in 1993. He donated the money from the prize (worth more than $1 million), as he does all speaking fees and royalties, to further the work of Prison Fellowship.

From convicted serial murderers Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer, to countless lesser-known people, there are many examples one could mention in a discussion of dramatic religious conversions or experi­ences of spiritual transformation among those who end up incarcerated. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that a number of individuals and groups dedicated to working with prisoners, offenders, and drug addicts are evangelical ministries whose work is based on the notion that a religious conversion is synonymous with reform or rehabilitation. In fact, for some faith-based groups or ministries, conversion is not only the first step—it is the only step necessary. In other words, if one accepts Jesus, then one’s needs have been met, not only from an eternal, but a temporal perspective.

Though perhaps less prevalent now, this position is still very much pervasive among many faith-motivated volunteers in prison ministry. For example, Champions for Life, founded in 1969 by former NFL player Bill Glass, is a Christian-based prison ministry that brings athletes, entertainers, and former prisoners into correctional facilities to present a very clear evangelistic message to the prisoners. The message is simple: accept Jesus and you can become a new person.   In fact, I recently had a candid conversation with the leadership of Champions for Life about this very subject. They were troubled by one of my earliest studies which found that born-again prisoners were just as likely to return to prison as other comparable prisoners. They did not understand how this could be possible if one really believes the Bible, and especially 2 Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” Knowing I was a Christian, they wanted to know how I could reconcile my findings with this particular scripture. The question raised by leaders of this prison ministry captures an addi­tional bias I have observed among many other Christians and ministries. Some secular individuals and groups often will not admit or accept that religion has a legitimate role in public life, while some religious people believe that faith alone is sufficient for ongoing transformation and that meeting worldly needs is not critical to sustain belief. At the expense of society at large, this paradox contributes to faith-based approaches remaining peripheral rather central to our crime-fighting strategies.

In response to the question posed by members of Champions for Life, I explained that I agreed with this scripture, but that it did not change the fact that prisoners face numerous and formidable challenges when they return to society. Just because an inmate makes a profession of faith in prison does not change the fact that he or she will struggle to find stable employment, acceptable housing, adequate transportation, and supportive family members. Because of these as well as other reentry difficulties, it is only a matter of time before many ex-prisoners return to prison. I would go on to argue that many (and perhaps most) inmates who experience religious conversions in prison are either unable or unwilling once released from prison to connect to a local congregation. Because reentry is so difficult, the decision to bypass the church is a recipe for disaster—effectively separating former prisoners from the support they would absolutely have to have in order to live a law-abiding and productive life in the free world. Without connections to the church, ex-prisoners will not have a mentor to hold them accountable, and they will not have access to the vibrant networks of social support that exist in so many congregations. These networks can touch each of the areas that are problematic during the reentry back to society.

Let me briefly return to the original question that an executive of Champions for Life asked me: how could I reconcile 2 Corinthians 5:17 with one of my published studies showing born-again inmates were just as likely to return to prison? My answer was painfully simple and direct. If the only difference between inmates who leave prison is that some are born-again Christians, it made sense to me that Christian inmates would have comparable recidivism rates. The conversion experience in and of itself is not enough to protect ex-prisoners from all manner of missteps they might take following release from prison. In-prison programs that provide highly structured instruction and mentoring are important to be sure, but they are only the start. Whatever instruction and mentoring inmates receive behind bars, they need significantly more support as ex-prisoners. Born-again Christian prisoners who are not the beneficiaries of this kind of support will most likely be re-arrested and returned to prison at similar rates as their nonreligious counterparts. Thus, these born-again ex-prisoners—new creations they may be—are just as likely to return to prison, though this time they will bring Jesus with them when they return.

I have interviewed hundreds of inmates over the years who are four- and even five-time losers (i.e., they have served four or five previous prison sentences). When asked about their faith background, many have indicated they became Christian during their first or second prison commitment. As many inmates have told me, they simply strayed from the truth and abandoned the commitments they made in prison and intended to keep after release. Though a tough pill to swallow, repre­sentatives from Champions for Life understood what I was saying, and perhaps reluctantly they agreed with me. I was certainly not trying to minimize their work or question their call to preach the gospel in pris­ons. They understood my point: unless other faith-based ministries on the outside of prisons are willing to do more to intentionally work with ex-prisoners, new converts would have a hard time making it in the free world. In essence, my position was that a conversion experience is really only the first step in a much longer journey. Spiritual transformation is an ongoing process that cannot be averted once an inmate leaves prison. Take, for example, faith-based programs like Teen Challenge, the largest faith-based drug treatment program in the world. Teen Challenge follows something similar to a twelve-step program, but with the distinction that the first step is based on accepting Jesus Christ as one’s Savior.  In other words, they recognize that many more steps are necessary to remain sober, but the nonnegotiable first step is faith in Jesus.

Jailhouse Religion

When people speak of jailhouse religion they are usually making a disparaging statement about those claiming to “find God” when they have hit rock bottom, and for many, that means prison. Most people (including prisoners) view the term “jailhouse religion” in a suspicious or even pejorative way. Charles “Tex” Watson, known as Charles Manson’s right-hand man, and who has been serving a life sentence for murder since 1971, made the statement at the top of this chapter about jailhouse religion. Watson became a born-again Christian in 1975 and for quite some time has been an ordained minister. Watson recognized that such conversions tend to be tied to people in utter despair, and with absolutely no hope they turn to God as a last resort. Because these professions of faith are made out of sheer desperation, many people argue that prisoners simply do not mean it. Therefore, jailhouse conversions are meaningless. Further, even if we assume inmates who find God in prison really do mean it (i.e., they make a genuine profession of faith), many observers concede that they have serious doubts that such conversions will stick.

We know from research that most religious conversions are not of the dramatic type. Rather, they tend to take place over time, often in connection with friends or family, and are anything but dramatic.  This is not to say that most people would deny the reality of dramatic conversion experiences or even the possibility of a person being delivered from some addiction or other social problem. Rather, it is simply an acknowledgment that dramatic conversions more likely represent the exception rather than the rule. However, many prison ministries (and there are thousands of them) would likely claim just the opposite.

Unfortunately, to date, we do not have much empirical documenta­tion of the prevalence of religious conversions, much less the role of conversions or spiritual transformations in influencing the behavioral change of inmates within correctional facilities, or more importantly, following release from prison.  I published a dissertation that tracked, over a ten-year period, inmates released from a prison in Florida who reported having a “born again” experience.  The born-again ex-prisoners were just as likely to be reincarcerated as comparable inmates from the same prison who did not report having a religious conversion.  In light of this finding, can we argue that religious conversions are meaningless or that jailhouse religion is of little value? Let me explain why the answer is an emphatic no.

First, one study does not a literature make. Second, the results from this particular study are not generalizable. That is to say, we can only argue that for this particular Florida prison, having a born-again experience had no significant impact on recidivism during the ten-year study period in which this research took place. Obviously, it is difficult to know the sincerity of prisoners who make professions of faith. Many powerful testimonials would seem to indicate an authentic conversion, but it is difficult to know exactly how to document the sincerity of such religious experiences. For example, at the point of death in the prison infirmary, Charles “Tex” Watson describes a spiritual turning point this way:

As I lay strapped on my back in the hospital, the words of the twenty-third Psalm—one I’d memorized as a child and read again in the Bible my mother had sent—began to run through my head: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. . . .” I repeated the whole Psalm, over and over, with a sudden clar­ity of memory. First it was a prayer; then it became the answer to the prayer. I was suddenly aware of another presence in the stark hospital cell, not exactly visible, but unmistakably, pow­erfully there. It was this new Christ I’d been reading about. There was no doubt of it; this Son of God was saying: “Come to Me . . .” and He was there. As the Psalm continued to flow through my mind it was as if He took me to Himself, held me, and filled me with a peace and a quiet that left me sure that everything was going to be all right, no matter what came next. Whether I lived or died, I had nothing to fear: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.” He was with me; I knew it and I could rest. It didn’t matter anymore what happened—He would not desert me.

Charles Watson has spent approximately thirty-five years sharing his faith with other prisoners. Without the possibility of parole, it would seem that Watson would have little, if anything, to gain by dedicating his life to prison ministry.

Many people remember the story of Karla Faye Tucker. She received the death penalty for the brutal murder of her friend Jerry Dean in 1983. After fourteen years on death row, Tucker was executed in 1998, in Huntsville, Texas. She had become an evangelical Christian in prison and would become a model inmate. Her acts of service became well known not only within the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, but around the country. Many prominent and powerful people would come to her aid in trying to convince then-governor George W. Bush to intervene and stop the execution. During her incarceration Tucker met her victim’s brother, Richard Thornton, and he would become a Christian as a result of her interaction with him. When asked if she had any last words before the lethal injection was administered, here is part of her statement:

Yes sir, I would like to say to all of you —the Thornton family and Jerry Dean’s family—that I am so sorry. I hope God will give you peace with this. . . . Everybody has been so good to me. I love all of you very much. I am going to be face to face with Jesus now. Warden Baggett, thank all of you so much. You have been so good to me. I love all of you very much. I will see you all when you get there. I will wait for you.

Recounting the last words of Karla Faye Tucker reminds me of conversations I have had over the years with prison chaplains who have worked specifically with death row inmates. In 1983, in search of suitable data for my dissertation, I met with William E. Counselman, chaplaincy services coordinator for the Florida Department of Corrections, in Tallahassee, Florida. Counselman had for many years been a death row chaplain at Florida State Prison in Starke, Florida, before taking an administrative post with the Florida Department of Corrections. When I asked him about his experiences of working with death row inmates, he indicated it had been a very difficult assignment. He shared with me that he had walked many men to the electric chair prior to May 1964.  In fact, he explained that executions for a good number of years were quite common and would receive very little media coverage. He related to me that many of the prisoners he worked with on death row would become Christians. And because many remained on death row for a number of years before the sentence was actually carried out, he was able to become a spiritual mentor to a number of these converts. Counselman asserted that the spiritual change he observed over time in many of these converts was truly remarkable. I remember Counselman stating, “Invariably, it was the condemned prisoner that ministered to me on that walk to the electric chair—instead of me ministering to them. They were prepared to die, but I wasn’t prepared to see them die.” Knowing that these prisoners were completely remorseful, that they had turned their lives over to God and were completely different people from the ones who had committed some awful act years earlier, made it all the more difficult for Chaplain Counselman.

A few years later, in 1988, I visited the Changi Prison in Singapore. I will never forget my shock when touring that facility. Built by the British in 1936, the prison was the most primitive I had ever seen.  One had the feeling a good gust wind of could blow the dilapidated facility down. It was hot and muggy in Singapore, and of course, there was no air conditioning in the prison. On my tour, I remember walking by a life-size photograph of a nude inmate who had recently been caned. Caning is a legal form of corporal punishment where inmates are beaten with canes (large, heavy, soaked rattan). The photograph showed blood flowing from a series of cuts running horizontally along the entire back, buttocks, and legs of the prisoner who was being disciplined. The photograph, of course, was intended to be a deterrent for future rule violators.

Shortly after my tour, I visited with the warden of the prison, and after offering me a cup of tea, the first thing he said was, “I know what you’re thinking—you are thinking we have no human rights here in Singapore.” What was I supposed to say to that? He was correct, of course. That is exactly what I was thinking, but at the same time I did not want to offend him or appear to be an ungrateful visitor. I simply smiled and said something stupid like, “You know the prisoners here seem remarkably well-behaved.” To which he smiled and replied, “Yes, I believe our recidivism rate is much lower than that found in the United States.”

While at the prison I also met with Henry Khoo. Rev. Khoo had been the chaplain at Changi Prison for many years, and he shared with me how they handle religious services and programs for the inmates. Accommodating the diverse spiritual needs of inmates is not as simple as some might think. Among other things, Khoo shared with me his memories of walking inmates to the gallows. In Singapore, hanging is the method by which inmates receiving the death penalty are executed.  I remember Khoo telling me how vastly different it was to walk to the gallows with prisoners who had become Christians, as opposed to non-Christians. He stated that the non-Christians tended to be bitter and angry during that last walk, and that you could see the torment in their faces. For the Christians, however, the situation was completely different. He described Christians as being at complete peace before the hanging, a calmness that was obvious to anyone observing. In essence, they were ready to meet their maker. I remember vividly Rev. Khoo telling me of one instance while walking an inmate to the gallows, the chaplain was so distraught he could not hold in his emotions and began to weep openly. The prisoner could hear the chaplain crying behind him, and stopped and turned around and told the chaplain, “I’m ashamed of you, where’s your faith? I’m going to be with Jesus in a few minutes. There’s no need to cry.” Khoo would tell me this was not an isolated case, and that many of the prisoners he walked to the gallows ended up ministering to him, rather the reverse.

There can be no denying that we certainly need more solid research on the role of religion within the correctional setting, and especially more focused research on spiritual conversion in prison. Nonetheless, it would seem shortsighted—for reasons I will share momentarily—to argue that religious conversions in prison are meaningless, or to assume they will not stick.

First, let me be very clear about my position on religious conversions in prison. I do not believe that conversion experiences—no matter how dramatic—are the answer to prisoner reform, or for that matter, a host of other crime-related problems (e.g., delinquency, violence, substance abuse, prisoner reentry, and aftercare). At the same time I do believe that “finding God” or becoming a born-again Christian can play a critically important role as a starting point in the process of long-term change and reform. In other words, religious conversions play a necessary role, but these conversions, in isolation, are insufficient in reforming offenders and bringing about lasting change. That is to say, the key to sustainable behavioral change is the ongoing process of spiritual transformation. My statement that conversion experiences (e.g., becoming a born-again Christian) in isolation of other factors is insufficient for reforming offenders will no doubt be viewed as heresy among some devote believers. To invoke Oswald Chambers, “what we call the process—God calls the end.”  The process of spiritual growth and development makes it possible to sustain a turning point that may have been initiated through a conversion. Let me explain.

In chapters 10 and 11, I discuss the many obstacles that prisoners face in returning to society. For many, it is only a matter of time before they break the law or violate a condition of their parole. Housing, employment, transportation, lack of life skills, and inability to handle stressful conditions are just some of the problems facing ex-prisoners. Former inmates who have had a conversion experience are not exempt from these obstacles. Indeed, unless ex-prisoners who happen to be born-again Christians get the social and spiritual support necessary to develop a deep and lasting religious commitment—mainly via congregations—they will likely fail in their effort to transition back to society. To deny this prospect one has to be completely naïve or unwilling to examine the facts.

Spiritual Transformation and Change over the Life Course

Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck conducted one of the most well-known delinquency studies of all time. The Gluecks in 1950 published the classic bookUnraveling Juvenile Delinquency, where they studied, among other things, five hundred troubled boys raised in Boston who had already been involved in delinquent behavior and had been put into reform school.  The Gluecks collected extensive records about the boys and tracked them through adolescence. Many years later, Robert Sampson and John Laub, two leading criminologists, would find all the original files from the Gluecks’ research and would ultimately follow up with the original respondents, to see how they were doing now that they were around 60 years of age. Sampson and Laub found out that some of the troubled boys, as one might expect, ended up in trouble with the law for the rest of their lives. Others, however, lived very normal lives and had no legal problems. In an important book, Sampson and Laub not only examined why troubled kids remained in trouble, but more important, they also focused on how so many of these troubled youth actually turned out well.

The answers that Sampson and Laub put forward are consistent with a life-course perspective. They found that the troubled kids who would get straightened out experienced some sort of a turning point or event that was pivotal in bringing them out of a criminal lifestyle or path, and into a more traditional and law-abiding pattern of behavior. These turning points, for example, could be landing a job, getting married, or becoming a parent. For others, going into military service might prove to be a turning point by perhaps providing the discipline and structure they were lacking. Likewise, the demands and responsibility that tend to come with employment, marriage, or raising a family likely provided the stability and purpose that are part and parcel of looking out for others’ welfare—all while staying out of trouble. In other words, life-course the­ory suggests that people can and do change. Just because a person starts out on the wrong track does not mean that he or she is destined to stay on the wrong track.

Essentially Sampson and Laub, as well as other life-course theorists, agree that having ties or bonds to social institutions (marriage, family, employment, etc.) significantly influences behavior over the course of a lifetime.  However, these theorists have had precious little to say about the factors that lead to the changes in ties or bonds. Stated differently, scholars have been reluctant to discuss how changes within the individual during adulthood may lead to the formation of these important social bonds.

In recent years, however, several scholars have acknowledged that changes in the individual must take place before that person is ready to develop ties and bonds to social institutions. In other words, the individual must change if the bond is to form. According to Doris MacKenzie, “To get along with family, keep a job, support children, or form strong, positive ties with other institutions, the person must change in cognitive reasoning, views toward drug use, anti-social attitudes, reading level, or vocation skills. A focus on individual change is critical to our understanding of what works in corrections.”  Peggy Giordano and her colleagues call this kind of change “cognitive transformation.”  For them, these cognitive transformations are essential before a person is able to sustain a new way of life. These researchers suggest that religion can be viewed not only as a source of external control over an individual’s conduct but also as a catalyst for new definitions and a cognitive blueprint for how one is to proceed as a changed individual. This pro­cess of change is facilitated by faith or spirituality, whether through an affiliation with a religious congregation, based more on personal spiri­tual experiences, or both. This process makes possible the development of a new and more favorable identity to replace the old one associated with any or all of the following: failure, violence, abuse, addiction, heartbreak, and guilt.

This is why religious conversions and spiritual transformations are important. These religious experiences are turning points or events in the lives of offenders. These religious experiences allow offenders to build a new foundation and to start their lives over. As discussed in chapter 6, many born-again inmates are able for the first time to admit to the crimes they have committed and get a new lease on life. As Shadd Maruna argues, getting a chance to rewrite one’s own narrative can be a powerful and redemptive thing, giving ex-prisoners the hope and purpose they need to start a new and prosocial life, while coming to grips with the antisocial life they have left behind.

Along these same lines, a number of restorative justice programs are interested in bringing crime victims and offenders face-to-face. These programs, many of which are faith-based, exist in order to bring closure and emotional healing to an experience that has never been reconciled.  I remember interviewing a particular prisoner on multiple occasions, Ron Flowers, a convicted murderer from Houston. Ron had become a Christian in prison, but nonetheless maintained his innocence. Flowers was convicted of shooting a teenage girl at gunpoint. The girl, Dee Dee Washington, was in the car of another person who, unbeknownst to her, was attempting to purchase drugs. In police parlance, she was simply an innocent bystander—collateral damage.

Ron Flowers participated in a faith-based prison program and met a pastor of a church in Houston who did volunteer work at the prison. One day the minister mentioned working with prisoners at a nearby prison. Intrigued, one of the members, Arna Washington, a schoolteacher, asked the pastor if he had met or had heard of Ron Flowers. “That’s the name of the man who killed my daughter fourteen years ago,” she stated. The pastor replied, “He’s in my group—would you like to meet him?” I doubt either the pastor or Mrs. Washington realized the mathematical long shot of Ron Flowers being in this small faith-based prison group. After all, Texas is home to more than one hundred thousand inmates in more than one hundred prisons.

Mrs. Washington, did, in fact, want to meet Ron Flowers—the person she had come to hate for literally devastating her family. Not long after her daughter’s murder, Mrs. Washington’s husband and son also died. Though a devout Christian, Mrs. Washington was clearly bitter and had written letters to the Texas parole board in an effort to ensure that Flow­ers would stay in prison as long as possible. Now she would actually have the opportunity to meet him and ask the question she had been struggling with for fourteen years.

When the meeting took place, several unexpected things happened. The second they met face-to-face, Flowers, to his surprise, for the first time, confessed to the murder. Mrs. Washington then asked the question she had been waiting to ask: “Why did you shoot and kill my daughter?” Flowers explained he had been a crazed young teenager who was strung out on drugs, and he just started shooting and she happened to get shot. He went to say, “I don’t know if you can forgive me, but I’m sorry for what I have done.” To Mrs. Washington’s surprise, she heard herself saying, “I forgive you.” Reflecting on that day, Mrs. Washington told me in one of our interviews, “That was the moment I got my life back. A huge load was lifted the instant I forgave him.” The story does not end there. Mrs. Washington went on to develop a strong and lasting relationship with Ron Flowers. In her own words, she “would adopt him as [my] son.” Ron got out of prison in 1998 and visited Mrs. Washington weekly. He sat with her in church on Sundays, and she played a crucial role in his successful transition back to society. Now happily married, Ron has been out of prison for more than a decade, has been employed at the same company for nine years, has a four-year-old son, and has a bright future. Ron recently told me his spiritual transformation is one that is still a work in progress, but it is something he continually seeks to deepen and mature.  Mrs. Washington died in 2007.

Though there are a number of significant aspects to this compelling story, perhaps the most significant for me was the impromptu admission of guilt by Flowers when confronted with Mrs. Washington. I would argue that his surprising admission of guilt, coupled with Mrs. Washington’s decision to forgive him, represented a powerful turning point that changed Ron Flowers’s life. This critical turning point, however, would not have happened had Ron not become a Christian through a faith-based prison program. For this reason, religious conversions are important. Becoming a born-again Christian may put into motion a sequence of events that become pivotal in dramatically changing a person’s behavioral trajectory. The conversion itself is not necessarily enough, but it provides a bridge to other faith-motivated individuals and resources that could prove instrumental in having a tipping effect in one person’s life.

Every year hundreds of thousands of prisoners participate in religious services and interact with faith-motivated volunteers and mentors. Many of these offenders have had religious conversions. In and of itself, this may not mean a great deal to criminologists, correctional practitioners, or policy makers. However, faith-based prison programs and, more importantly, faith-based reentry and aftercare programs have the poten­tial to build upon these religious conversions. In the life course, conversions should not be viewed cynically as jailhouse religion, but rather as the opportunity to connect these converts to volunteers and faith-based networks that can facilitate and nurture spiritual transformation.

This is exactly why the most effective programs helping offenders are those that intentionally link spiritual transformation to other support networks, especially those that are faith-motivated and faith-friendly. Let me be clear: simply relying only on faith-based prison programs to reform prisoners and reduce crime would be a misguided policy recom­mendation. However, faith-based organizations, governmental agencies, and other social service providers need to think strategically about partnerships and mutual accountability in order to produce results that reduce recidivism and protect the public safety. The next three chapters elaborate on why these religious connections are important and how we can be intentional about developing them.


Excerpted from More God, Less Crime 2011, published by Templeton Press