US Prison Seminaries: Neoliberalism and Faith-Based Corrections

Efforts to reduce taxpayer spending on corrections have featured expanded use of private for-profit corporations as well as increased use of voluntary sector organizations, particularly “faith-based” programs seeking offenders’ self-transformation (Hallett, 2006). In an effort to end the “government monopoly” on delivery of services in criminal justice, a new level of both “structural charity” and “market competition” is an increasingly commonplace feature of correctional budgeting (see Boden, 2006; Hackworth, 2012; Hannah-Moffat, 2000, pp. 45-46). The strategic vesting of charitable resources for delivery of services in American prisons has been used to justify reduced spending (Cooper, 2015, p. 65; Hallett, 2006). However, in what Martha Boden (2006) calls the danger of “compassion inaction,” by expanding reliance upon religious volunteers, governmental support for meeting the needs of prisoners and prisons as a whole becomes weakened. In sum, while religious faith genuinely offers prisoners and ex-offenders the spiritual resources and fortitude necessary to survive incarceration and release – in practice, the official use and deployment of religious faith in prison often undermines its credibility and violates religious freedoms both of religious practitioners and non-believers inside. 

Religious Establishment and U.S. Prison Seminaries

Given that our previous research demonstrates the “immersive” character of prison seminaries is particularly intense and that such programs often require rigidly structured experiences of religion as a condition of completion, this article explores administrative practices at six U.S. prison seminary programs from the perspective of religious establishment (see Duwe et al., 2015; Hallett et al., 2016, 2017). Specifically, this article focuses on four potential problem areas of Establishment Clause jurisprudence relevant to the operation of Christian seminaries in U.S. prisons: (a) “Excessive entanglement” of state and religious stakeholders; (b) a lack of religious neutrality; (c) inadequate solicitation and development of alternative equivalent educational programs, offering only narrowly religious education opportunities for inmates; and (d) in limited cases, a sui-generis level of de facto coercion resulting from profound differences in the material treatment of Christian seminary inmates versus prisoners in the general population. Those activists concerned about maintaining religious freedom in prisons and maximizing the positive impact religion has inside, must constructively confront Christian penal charity in order to preserve the influence of faith and assure all inmates have the right to freely practice – particularly those “voluntarily” enrolled in US Prison Seminaries.