“I believe in working with the hearts of people, and not locking them up,” Pat Robertson pronounced on his long-running Christian television program, The 700 Club where he alarmed some of his constituency by declaring his support for the legalization of marijuana and an end to long prison sentences for drug offenses. “It’s completely out of control,” said Robertson. “Prisons are being overcrowded …. And the penalties, the maximums, some of them could get 10 years for possession of a joint of marijuana. It makes no sense at all.” Robertson, a conservative Christian and revered icon of the Christian Right seems an unlikely champion of the decriminalization of drugs and prison reform.

Yet, Robertson echoed a sentiment I’ve found to be common across an array of Protestant and evangelical prison groups: the idea that they change the hearts of prisoners.  His assertion that the U.S. “has gone overboard on this concept of being tough on crime”  also bespeaks a notable shift in the rhetoric of some Republicans and elite Christian conservatives who historically shied away from the taboo topic of emptying prisons in favor of the expedient and vote-mongering issue of crime.  Conservatives like Newt Gingrich and the recently deceased Chuck Colson contend that changing the hearts of prisons reduces recidivism and saves states money.  For them, prison reform entails the transformation of a prisoner from the heart, an inner revolution to remake prisoners into citizens and new human beings.

Christians talk of having a “heart for God,” “a prayerful heart” or a “heart for helping.”   Belief in the heart’s centrality to human being and, more specifically the idea of a heart change that is a total metamorphosis in a person’s life together motivate the existence of a range of faith-based programs in prisons throughout the United States.  During several years of doing ethnographic research in prisons in Florida, Ohio, California, and Washington, I have observed the language of “heart change” in numerous such programs.  Drawing on a tradition of prison reform that dates back to first penitentiaries of the early 1800s, such faith groups argue that men and women in prison are not incorrigible and irredeemable criminals, but beings who always have the potential to be reformed.  Heart change programs call into question the well-worn adage, “once a criminal, always a criminal,” and promise instead that incarcerated criminals can rediscover their true selves, their true hearts and thus be remade.

The dominant discourse of prison ministries stresses the old-fashioned message that it is ultimately God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit who transforms hearts, and that such transformation requires unwavering faith in God’s power. In a recent newsletter, Jim Liske, the director of Prison Fellowship Ministries (PFM), a national organization that runs evangelical programs in hundreds of state and federal prisons, recounted the difficulty researchers faced when they tried to statistically measure the intrinsic motivation for someone in prison to change. “They were having a hard time,” according to Liske (2012), “because they were trying to analyze the supernatural—the unique power of God’s Holy Spirit to transform hearts [and renew] the spirits of men and women from the inside out.” Heart transformation exists outside human intervention in Liske’s juxtaposition of petty social science and God’s mysterious and all-powerful ways.

While socially conservative, such programs offer a critique of the assumption of “incorrigibility” that underlies the contemporary carceral state, which has largely abandoned any pretense at prisoner reform.  Liske and others like him believe no one is inherently criminal and that Christians owe a duty to aid the incarcerated in changing their hearts.  They believe that in so doing, prisoners can transform not merely themselves but their families, communities, and the nation.

This commitment runs counter to the logic of mass incarceration that has led scholar Jonathan Simon to call the US prison industrial complex a “waste management system” (Simon 2010)  for the poor and socially marginalized.  A constellation of economic, social, and political factors has tipped the penal system’s always-precarious balance between reform and punishment toward the latter, and driven the development of prisons as warehouses for the unredeemable.  Prison ministries do not challenge the political economy or structural racism and classism that have underpinned the growth of the American prison system, but their focus on heart change reflects the tension between the punitive and reformative impulses that haunt the history of American incarceration.

According to the Department of Justice, as of 2005, prisons in at least eighteen states contained some form of residential faith-based program aimed at rehabilitating people in prison through programming with religious principles (Volokh 2011).  But these statistics don’t account for the vast numbers of religious volunteers, working under the supervision of primarily Christian chaplains, who regularly conduct worship services, Bible studies, individual counseling, and small encounter groups throughout the day in prison chapels.

This corps of free labor drawn from conservative nondenominational faith-based groups has helped to fill the void created by budget cuts.  In a dismal economic climate, religious volunteers who administer everything from AA groups to public speaking save the state money.  As access to educational, vocational, and recreational programming that is secular, non-Christian, or even mainline protestant has diminished, heart-change programs like PFM, Kairos, and Horizons, as well as those sponsored by local Christian churches and prison ministries, have flourished with American prisons. The punitive regime of the prison system coexists uneasily with faith-based programs’ rationales that redemption and transformation are possible with heart change.

The message of heart change intersects with a burgeoning conservative interest in prison reform in which reentry and rehabilitation, despite the lack of infrastructure to support them, have become fiscal imperatives.  Faith- based programs had grown as a result of policy initiatives—particularly under George W. Bush’s presidency—but economic constraint helped to solidify their hold on prison culture.  Americans by and large seemed to favor the growth of the prison system in the last decades of the 20th century, but more recently the Federal Bureau of Prisons and individual states have come under intense political pressure to tighten budgets in a time of economic recession.

When the attorney general introduced legislation in August to end harsh sentencing laws for low-level drug offenses, he was influenced by the national organization Right on Crime, with prominent Republican conservatives at its helm such as Gingrich, Grover Norquist, Jeb Bush, Richard Viguerie, and Ed Meese, who advocate economically responsible responses to mass incarceration (Dagan and Teles 2012). Right on Crime weds the neoliberal tenets of limited government, individual liberty, personal responsibility and free enterprise to heart change, but they also support de-carceration for drug offenders, minimum wage compensation for prison labor, prison construction moratoriums, eradication of “zero tolerance” policies in public schools, more drug courts, better probation systems, and community treatment centers for the mentally ill and drug addicts and an end to solitary confinement.  Economic necessity has made prison reformers of former tough-on-crime zealots.

There is a story about Pope John Paul II touring a maximum-security prison in the US. His advice to the prisoners was:

“Don’t lose hope.  This is not the worst prison. The worst prison is a closed heart.”

  What is the faith-based interest in the prison?  Merely as a mission field, a captive population for evangelization?  As part of a charitable impulse to enact the biblical injunction, “I was in prison and you visited me?”  An opportunity to create a theology of liberation and social justice that works to abolish the prison regime?  A desire to provide social services to those most in need of them?  A cheaper and more efficient way to save states money?  It is all these things at once and different times.  The faith-based model transforms the material and historical weight of racism, violence, crime, and economics into a kind of emotional weight that the individual prisoner must bear in order to be deemed a citizen.   Rather than a sanctuary from market logic, in this case, faith offers a sanctification of it in prison.


Liske J (2012) The heart of the matter. Prison Fellowship Ministries Newsletter. August 30.
Simon J (2010) Beyond the Panopticon: Mass Imprisonment and the Humanities. Law, Culture and the Humanities 6(3): 327-340.
Volokh A (2011) Do Faith-Based Prisons Work? Alabama Law Review 63(1): 43.
Dagan D and SM Teles (2012) The Conservative War on Prisons. Washington Monthly November/December.