Religion essential for convicts

Published April 11, 2012

State penitentiaries keep chaplains busy with convicts’ rehabilitation, according to a new poll. Photo: Steven Frame

U.S. state penitentiaries are hives of religious activity, according to a new 50-state survey from the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life. Furthermore, a majority of the 730 prison chaplains interviewed last year for the study say that access to faith-based counselling is crucial for prisoners’ rehabilitation and their successful re-entry into society after release.

Conducted by the Washington, D.C.-based social “fact” tank, the Pew poll reports that 73% say efforts by inmates to proselytize or convert other inmates are common. About three-quarters of the chaplains say that a lot (26%) or some (51%) religious switching occurs among inmates in the prisons where they serve. Many chaplains report growth in the numbers of Muslims and Protestant Christians due to switching of religious affiliations.

Among chaplains who report that at least some switching occurs within their correctional facilities, 51% report that Muslims are growing in number, and 47% say the same about Protestant Christians. More than about a third of chaplains also say that followers of pagan or earth-based religions are growing.

Overwhelmingly, state prison chaplains consider faith an important aspect of rehabilitating prisoners. Nearly three-quarters of (73%), for example, say they consider access to religion-related programs in prison to be “absolutely critical” to the successful rehabilitation of inmates.

And 78% say they consider support from religious groups after inmates are released from prison to be absolutely critical to inmates’ successful re-entry into society. Among chaplains working in prisons that have religion-related rehabilitation or re-entry programs, more than half (57%) say the quality of such programs has improved over the past three years and 61% say participation in such programs has increased.

At the same time, a sizable minority of chaplains say that religious extremism is either very common (12%) or somewhat common (29%) among inmates. Religious extremism is reported by the chaplains as especially common among Muslim inmates (including followers of the Nation of Islam and the Moorish Science Temple of America). Extremism exists to a lesser degree but still substantial degree, among followers of pagan or earth-based religions such as Odinism and various forms of Wicca.

As for the chaplains themselves, 85% identify themselves as Christian, 71% as Protestant and 44% as evangelical Protestant.

For the full report go to and click on Religion in Prisons.


  • Diana Swift

    Diana Swift is an award-winning writer and editor with 30 years’ experience in newspaper and magazine editing and production. In January 2011, she joined the Anglican Journal as a contributing editor.

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