Category Archives: Incarceration

God in Captivity: A talk with Professor Tanya Erzen

On Monday, March 27th, 2017, the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project hosted Tanya Erzen to speak as part of a series of lunchtime lectures on Law, Rights, and Religion at Columbia Law School. Tanya Erzen is the Executive Director of the Freedom Education Project of Puget Sound, and Associate Research Professor of Religion and Gender Studies at the University of Puget Sound; her work focuses on intersections of religion and faith in American politics and popular culture, with a focus on religion and conservatism in U.S. carceral systems. The Public Rights/Private Conscience Project engaged Professor Erzen in discussion on her recently published book from Beacon Press, God in Captivity: The Rise of Faith-Based Ministries in the Age of Mass Incarceration[1]. Following the program, Kira Shepherd, Associate Director of the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project’s Racial Justice Program conducted a brief interview with Professor Erzen on the experiences that inspired her to write God in Captivity, the history of faith-based prison ministries in the United States, and the social and political implications of the prison industrial complex’s partnerships with faith-based prison ministries.

Watch the video of this talk here, and read the full transcript of Kira’s discussion with Professor Erzen, below.

Kira Shepherd:

Hi, Thanks for joining us today at the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project. Today we had a talk with Tanya Erzen, who talked about her book, God in Captivity: The Rise of Faith Based Ministries in the Age of Mass Incarceration. Can you tell me what drove you to write the book, and can you tell me a little more about what the book is about?

Tanya Erzen:

I actually lived in New York for quite some time and I taught – I was at Barnard when I had my Post-Doc., and at that time I taught in a women’s prison on the West Side Highway called Bayview[2], and I think that what struck me, being there, was that so often the groups that you saw coming in besides family members and loved ones were faith-based groups in such high numbers. Around that time, the same person who got me interested in teaching sent me a news article – it was about 2003 – that said that Florida had actually transformed all of their state prisons to faith-based character institutions[3]: this idea that rehabilitation would happen through some kind of relationship to a faith-based group or a religious tradition.

And what was interesting is that for so many years when you talked to people in prison, especially administration, but in the general public if you said, “A person in prison became religious” it was treated or met with a lot of skepticism – it was almost considered the ultimate con, right? “Everybody gets religion in prison”… and there was a real shift in that suddenly prison administrations were touting faith-based ministry and faith-based groups as the most effective form of rehabilitation and reform for the individual. It really comes out of my teaching college in a prison, and running the college program, and also really thinking about how we use the idea of transformation through education, and that’s the same language that faith-based groups use. What happens on the ground that’s different between education groups and faith-based groups, and how are they distinct – that’s a question I’ve been trying to consider.

Kira Shepherd:

In the book you talk about how there was a policy shift that led to the rise of faith-based ministries: Can you tell me a bit more about that shift – when it happened, and why it happened?

Tanya Erzen:

Sure. Really, I mean, it starts in the 1970s. Chuck Holston, who was an aide to Nixon and went to prison for Watergate-related crimes came out of prison as a born-again Christian, wrote a book about it, and founded Prison Fellowship Ministry, which is the largest faith-based prison ministry group in the country, and they’re all over: both running entire wings of prisons and operating programs that are based on becoming born-again as an evangelical as a part of being rehabilitated. It is a time when the prison population is increasing at a dramatic rate and a lot of states are cutting budgets, because they can’t pay for services. So at the same time you have the rise of non-denominational conservative Christianity eclipsing mainstream main-line Protestantism as their congregations are dying, and a lot of these groups are set up to have small groups that go and do work in different sectors, and so there’s this whole corps of volunteers who could come in. And then also, policy-wise, more recently in the late 90s and 2000s, you have people who knew Chuck Holston and Pat Nolan and who work with Prison Fellowship Ministry, they’re lobbying Republicans around this idea that they have to address criminal justice reform as an issue of public safety and fiscal responsibility. So for the first time, instead of people being, you know, tough on crime, they’ve shifted the discourse to being “smart” on crime or “right” on crime. And that you have conservatives looking to dismantle or to reform prisons and to institute criminal justice reforms whether through better parole systems, different sentences for people who commit non-violent crimes, working to end sentences for juveniles and so forth in collaboration with more progressive groups like the ACLU, but the rationale for them is always sort of different and it has really transformed the landscape of criminal justice reform around the country and you have big donors like the Koch brothers who are funding conferences on criminal justice reform and trying to assert changes; that movement really emerges from the work of evangelical ministries, and evangelical ministries support the rationale of that conservative agenda because they’re doing the work of the state, but they are doing it as volunteers through – and in – a privatized manner: So if you see the prison as this over-bloated bureaucracy that sucks too much money, faith-based groups are the ideal solution, because they come in and they argue that they can do this more effectively and at a cheaper cost.

Kira Shepherd:

Can you talk about the impact that these ministries have on LGBTQ communities in prison?

Tanya Erzen:

I would say the impact is incredibly negative. There aren’t a lot of support groups to begin with for the LGBT men and women in prison and often, those groups, people are very marginalized. Because of laws like PREA (Prison Rape Elimination Act) [4], prisons have become really obsessed, legally, with questions of boundaries and any kind of reporting around gender. I think what that has done also has sort of squashed the possibility of certain people being out about their sexuality and meeting, but a lot of faith-based ministries have very socially conservative principles and theologically conservative principles in which they don’t see being gay as a legitimate way of being. So if you are a self-identified gay person, a gay man, or a lesbian or a trans person, you aren’t allowed to participate in ministries in many ways, and as I mentioned in my talk[5] they have formed ex-gay ministries to try to convert people from gay to straight, as fraught and as complicated as that is….I think, you know, this just furthers this idea of faith-based ministries… A “real” Christian Ministry – if you’re looking at it from a principle of forgiveness or justice – would [have a mission of] “I’m going to help and support everyone” as a principle. What [faith-based prison ministries] are doing is saying, “I will support and help you: I’ll give you education, I’ll help you with re-entry, as long as you believe what I believe” – and that is coercive, and it’s discriminatory.

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[1] Beacon Press. http://www.beacon.org/God-in-Captivity-P1256.aspx. Retrieved 30 March 2017.

[2] History of Bayview Correctional Facility – A Vertical Institution: https://web.archive.org/web/20041205091718/http://www.geocities.com/MotorCity/Downs/3548/facility/bayview.html. Kasper, Ed (November 2001). “History of Bayview CF – A vertical institution”. New York State Correction Officer Informational Page. Archived from the original on 5 December 2004. Retrieved 29 March 2017.

[3] Florida State Statute 944.803, entered in 2003, available at www.leg.state.fl.us: http://www.leg.state.fl.us/Statutes/index.cfm?App_mode=Display_Statute&Search_String=&URL=0900-0999/0944/Sections/0944.803.html. Retrieved 29 March 2017.

[4] Information on PREA – from the PREA Resource Center: https://www.prearesourcecenter.org/about/prison-rape-elimination-act-prea. Retrieved 30 March 2017.

[5] Video from Tanya Erzen’s full talk on God in Captivity: The Rise of Faith-Based Prison Ministries in the Age of Mass Incarceration with the Public Rights/Private Conscience Project at Columbia Law School is available here: https://www.facebook.com/emboylan1/videos/404885809867240/. Retrieved 30 March 2017.