The Land of the (Not Quite) Free: Women and Religion Behind Bars by Amy Levin

The sun was setting on an early Friday evening in October 2008 as I pulled into the parking lot of the Iowa Correctional Institute for Women, a maximum level security prison housing nearly 700 inmates. Though the serene drive on Iowa’s main highway lasted a mere 40 minutes from Grinnell to Mitchellville, my co-teacher and I felt worlds away from our tiny utopian bubble of books and booze. As we gathered our teaching materials for a course we designed called “Feminist Playwriting,” we made sure not to bring in any contraband, one of the many precautions given during our orientation for students participating in Grinnell Liberal Arts in Prison, a program created in 2003 that allows students to design liberal arts courses in either a men or women’s Iowa prison. My experience interacting with an incredible roomful of women, some who would suffer behind bars for the rest of their lives, was needless to say a life changing experience. That semester ignited a fire in me for prison rights, which recently has manifested in a concern for the nexus of religion and prison.

Many Americans view prison and prisoners through a binary lens – the good are free, and the bad are behind bars, or at least should be. We also tend to pride ourselves on the fact that we value freedom, but when Francis Scott Key invoked the phrase “Land of the Free,” he must not have predicted that the United States would imprison more people than any other country on the planet. America incarcerates roughly 2.3 million Americans, 208,000 of which are women. As a New York Times article in 2008 put it quite shockingly: “The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population. But it has almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.” These statistics do not even touch upon the staggering disproportionate number of African Americans in prison, and it certainly doesn’t tell us anything about women’s experiences in prison.

Helping to fill this void, my co-teacher from the Grinnell prison program is in the process of finishing her film, The Grey Area, which documents the experiences of those in the Iowa Correctional Institute for Women. Similar efforts include the “Women Behind Bars” project, and Interrupted Life: Experiences of Incarcerated Women in the United States, all of which raise awareness to the fact that factors like sexual and physical abuse, poverty, and drug use are large contributors to female incarceration. There are also those who argue for prison reform, from Elizabeth Fry, the American Quaker and minister who wrote about and visited women’s prisons in the early 1800s, to “Occupy Prison,” which supports “Abolishing unjust sentences, such as the Death Penalty, Life Without the Possibility of Parole, Three Strikes, Juvenile Life Without Parole, and the practice of trying children as adults,” among a list of other demands.

But now to add religion into the mix. Depending on what we mean by religious freedom, it seems that the commingling of religion and prison can both expand and limit the agency of incarcerated women and men. Based on my nascent knowledge of “Prison Religion,” there seem to be two (related) narratives going on concerning this relationship. 1. Prisoners should/shouldn’t be allowed to practice religious rituals that require any special treatment, and 2. Religion can/cannot help reduce the rate of recidivism (criminal relapse) and thus faith-based rehabilitation programs should/shouldn’t take the place of government funded ones. To begin with the first, in the past year or so we witnessed Representative Peter King’s (R-NY) hearings on what he offensively called “prislam,” where he argued for the danger of radical Islam spreading throughout prison walls. Additionally, there was the Jezebel story of the a woman who sued the Supreme Court for making her remove her hijab, as well as the coverage of prisoners having extreme difficulty obtaining kosher, halal, and vegetarian food even with the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Act of 2000 (“RLUIPA”), which guarantees these rights.

The second issue – faith-based rehabilitation programs – is perhaps more complicated, not to mention dangerous. As of 2005, as many as 19 states received federal funding for faith-based residential programs in their prisons. While some of these programs have decreased the recidivism rate, they also threaten the religious freedoms of religious and non-religious inmates, as well as perpetuate the shrinkage of government funding. In his book, Prison Religion, Winnifred F. Sullivan documents the trial concerning a faith-based program in the Newton Correctional Facility (another option for the Grinnell prison program), called Americans United for the Separation of Church and State v. Prison Fellowship Ministries. The plaintiff argued that the agreement between the Prison Fellowship Ministries (PFM) and the State of Iowa violated the First Amendment’s establishment clause.

The main problem with this particular prison rehabilitation program was that the inmates who were not evangelical (including Muslim, Jewish, Mormon, Catholic, Native American, and Lutheran) felt discriminated against based on their beliefs. Not only did many of the inmates who testified feel that the program wasn’t religiously inclusive, but because the program offered better amenities such as nicer bathrooms, sinks, safety, and treatment programs, they felt particularly abused. One of the arguments that the defending lawyers continually gave was the faith-based program was a choice, and that prisoners did not have to participate in it. However, when your basic human rights are on the line, the question of “choosing” between a safety cell lock and God, “liberty” doesn’t seem so readily available.

Faith-based programs aren’t just available to men, and in 2004 former Governor Jeb Bush announced the opening of the nation’s first faith-based prison for women in Hillsborough County. My concern is that while these programs provide the possibility of enhanced care and rehabilitation for some women, I worry that those who have already given up their basic human rights will have to give up another – religion, and that includes the right to no religion. Thus, it seems that when it comes to both female and male inmates, religion can provide a source of freedom, as long as we know when to keep it behind bars.

6 thoughts on “The Land of the (Not Quite) Free: Women and Religion Behind Bars by Amy Levin”

  1. When I was in seminary, one of the more astute students was working in prison ministry. He noted that it wasn’t “religion” per se that helped people, but relation. If you were going in and giving people a Jesus fix, it would quickly dissipate. But building relation and community really gave people help. I recommended Carter Heyward’s theology to him at the time – it was a case where the praxis was already in place, but could be deepened with a feminist lens. He was very receptive to the suggestion, but I don’t know if he followed through with it.

    I also see a connection between the numbing effects of society as a whole when we “Other” a large segment of the population, and a dualistic conception of “guilt” and “innocence” – where the prisoner becomes a symbol of guilt and the fetus becomes a symbol of innocence. There seems to be a need in each case to absolutize guilt and innocence in a way that provides a fantasy of an ambiguity-free ethics.


  2. Michel Foucault wrote Crime and Punish outlining issues of the prison system and spent the latter part of his life fighting for reform. With privatization of prisons, there are some really serious issues. I have to tell you when this book was discussed in class, religion and gender never came up. What was interesting was the dynamic of the class: a former prosecutor, a person who worked in the legal field, and me (I am married to a probation officer and also work in the legal field myself – both of us for over 20 years). I am fascinated in your observations that hones specifically with gender and religion. I wonder if the trend towards evangelization (or fundamentalism) is due more to their willingness to minister to the prison population. Prisons are a very uncomfortable place to go let alone minister. Anyone who takes on that ministry has a special calling. I look at Sr. Prejean and her ministry with death row – and wonder how she is able to show up day in and day out ministering to these inmates. She truly has a gift, and if you ever have the opportunity to hear speak, I encourage it. She can touch even the biggest cynic.

    With all of that said, I must admit that based on my husband’s and my own experience that I tend to interrogate the situation. Discerning who wants help vs. who is playing the system can be a difficult task. Compound that with prison systems that are privatized and over-crowdedness, there are prisoners released that really need rehabilitated or a danger to society but there are also prisoners imprisoned for lesser offenses that might be better served in a rehabilitation or counseling program.

    Certainly, this topic is touchy – but the issues that you bring up really need more examination.


    1. Michele over 80% of the people incarcerated are non- violent offenders. Ever since the 3 strikes law came out it has been abused every which way by the DA and other prosecutors to keep people behind bars, or going back, which many of the people sent back on account of drug offenses for personal use, not distribution and excuse my strong words, but this really pisses me off considering who started this so called war on drugs in the first place in turn is such a contradiction. In wasn’t the Mexicans or the Blacks, they didn’t have the capital to start the drug problems in this country, so who is left with the capital to start it? The people of color might be the middle man or low key people but they didn’t start this billion dollar global business. This prison system is one of the worst conspiracy’s ever invented. Can’t anyone see why these problems have truly manifested? What is the real reason these systems are privatized, who is it benefiting from it all? The corporations, the politicians, business of all kinds world wide. I know my fellow classmates are afraid to speak their real thoughts and tell me I shouldn’t advocate my feelings or thoughts, but isn’t that a problem too? Enough of us don’t speak up and stand up towards the problems that weigh on all of us, this is not just about people incarcerated or poverty, lack of education, lack of jobs, this government is squeezing the people very slowly of all the possibilities of living a quality of life, to raise their children in hopes for a good future, to love each other as people, to have career opportunity, universal health care. The only people that matter is the 1% to the 1%, nobody else.

      In my feminist ethics course I was supposed to write my journal on a person or subject of empathy-sympathy. I haven’t written it as of yet, but now I guess I can. I think of all the areas of life I have sympathy for and those I don’t. People have been broken being in prison and I have no doubt there are those who do need to be locked up like “Charles Manson” and sex offenders, etc. However there are millions of people I’m sure who want or wanted all the things anyone of us here works at and tries to hold onto. A home, feeling safe, a career, are families and love. I glad to hear this minister Sr. Prejean has that special gift to go to the people in the jails and prisons, God only knows someone needs to warm their spirit. My words are not to attack on your personally Michelle, I just can’t get past what is happening to this country, why man has become so entrenched with greed and destruction, at night when I go to sleep thinking of all the elements in life that make feel good is the only way to stay sane in a world that has lead to global destruction. To end my thoughts on a mental note since this is a religion blog, maybe it is time for the world to end, I can’t believe God is pleased with any of it.


  3. Really great article Amy. I think what this brings up is the complexity of prisons and the many differences that exist within the walls which all have to co-exist somehow.

    Just from my observations, and from what I have read, religion and those who spread the word inside prisons have helped prisoners in numerous ways. And from my experience, I wish I had come across Kairos a lot earlier than I did and its programs for women. While I was looking for some sort of support group (before I found Kairos) or some assistance in speaking with women who were going through the same thing as I was, I continually found that programs had been axed usually because funding was no longer provided.

    Having said this, because it has mostly been christianity that has helped people inside, doesn’t mean that other religious faiths cannot also help prisoners. I think that there should be religious freedom inside, including as you point out, the right to no religion. This is representative of the real world, and the real world is what prisoners have to come out to. It is difficult enough for prisoners to re-adapt without having to feel like they were somehow made to change or treated differently because of their beliefs while they were inside.

    It is also problematic when prisons are given funding from governments for religious programs and somehow this is related to how many prisoners participate in the programs. This brings up the issues of privatising prisons and the many issues and problems this raises.


  4. So many important issues here.
    My former student Stacy Kabat founded Battered Women Fighting back after she discovered that a disproportionate number of women were in jail for killing abusive male partners. She also told me a large number of women are in jali for petty theft and bad checks, raising the image of a debtors’ prison for women.
    As for religion, I have also been horrified to learn that the US military is becoming difficult territory for anyone who is not a fundamentalist Christian–see the Pat Tillman Story. I am opposed to the military in any case, but this should not be happening. I worry about the future of freedom of religion in America.


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