WASHINGTON – It’s rare to hear about street hardened criminals in a prison sneaking around to share the Gospel with fellow inmates. But it happened at a faith-based prison in Houston, Texas.
Criminologist Byron R. Johnson shared this story and stories like it when he spoke at The Family Research Council headquarters Thursday in Washington, D.C. His new book More God, Less Crime explores an emerging conversation on the effects of religion on criminal behavior, and how it can change behavior for the better.
Johnson, a professor of Social Sciences and director for the Program on Prosocial Behavior at Baylor University, said the book is a compilation and analysis of almost 300 studies regarding crime and religion.
His book highlights the major developments on the subject in the last 25 years, and the implications they have for faith-based organizations. Most of the studies in his book found an inverse relationship between religion and crime – meaning the more religion you have, the less crime there is.
Johnson makes the argument that communities, congregations and faith-based organizations are essential in forming partnerships necessary to address crime and the problems facing former prisoners.
One example he gave is faith-based prisons started by Prison Fellowship in Texas in 1997. He says he spent six years studying the prison and the effects it had on inmates during and after their time within the program.
When the prison launched in Houston it was comprised of 400 men. They were split up into two groups – one half was a faith-based group and the other half was just called “general population.” The faith-based side was “quarantined” to keep them from interacting with the general population.
The program wasn’t all Bible studies and worship, although that was a part of it, Johnson said. Inmates had to work every day. The program also provided vocational training and educational opportunities. “It was the most comprehensive prison program I’ve ever seen,” he said.
After a few months, a strange phenomenon began taking place. The general population wanted to be a part of the faith-based program. Johnson started noticing people in the faith-based program sneaking over to those in the general population and sharing their faith with the other inmates. There were covert Bible studies going on.
He says the correctional officers and warden were also affected by the faith-based program. At the beginning, they were very suspicious of it, but as the culture of the prison changed, they began to see how much safer their working environment was.
In the end, those that completed the program were two times less likely to be arrested again than those who didn’t go through the program. They also had mentors who stayed with them when they left the program. Those mentors helped them reintegrate back into life outside of prison.
Reintegration is an important step for many prisoners when they leave prison life behind. Every year in the United States, 700,000 people get out of prison in the U.S. Johnson said the problem is, a lot of churches have prison ministries, but aren’t quite sure how to tackle re-entry for former prisoners.
But the professor proposed a solution to this problem. He said the key is getting churches to provide mentors for these prisoners. Partnerships between churches and outside organizations that help train mentors would make a huge impact on whether or not these prisoners relapsed into a life of crime.
Through his book, Johnson wants people to see the crisis of the U.S. prison system and find solutions to dealing with it. As more and more people see the studies he presents, there is more openness to starting faith-based programs. He said these programs are changing lives and minds, and give a much needed alternative solution to dealing with the American criminal justice system.