Christian Psychotherapy for Convicts?

Aug 03, 2023

Failed Rehabilitation Facilities Are Those Built Without a Sound Foundation:

Repeated research studies have consistently shown that secular rehabilitation efforts have failed to prevent recidivism among inmates. Despite numerous attempts at psychological counseling, none of these approaches have been able to demonstrate statistically significant success in helping prisoners rehabilitate. A startling example is the study conducted on nearly 300,000 prisoners released in 15 states in 1994, which revealed that 67.5% of them were re-arrested within just 3 years. Another study, focusing on 1983 releases, estimated a recidivism rate of 62.5% (Langan and Levin, Bureau of Justice Statistics, June 2002).

This issue is not a recent development; historical evidence also supports the lack of effectiveness in correctional treatment. The publication of "The Effectiveness of Correctional Treatment" by Lipton, Martinson, and Wilks in 1975 highlighted the ongoing controversy surrounding whether correctional treatment truly reduces recidivism. This comprehensive review assessed various treatments, such as individual and group psychotherapy, counseling, intensive casework, and skill development. The results on different outcome criteria, including adjustment to prison life, vocational success, and recidivism rates, failed to convincingly demonstrate any direct relationship between specific treatments or combinations of programs and a decrease in recidivism.

In fact, a critical review of the Lipton study conducted by Martinson concluded that, except for a few isolated exceptions, the rehabilitative efforts reported so far have had little to no impact on reducing recidivism rates. Despite decades of research and experimentation, the challenge of effectively rehabilitating prisoners remains a significant concern within the field of correctional treatment.

Psychotherapy has demonstrated its effectiveness with various populations, as indicated by research and publications such as Consumer Reports (Seligman, 1995). The study concluded that patients who received long-term psychotherapy experienced substantial benefits, outperforming those who received short-term treatment. Additionally, psychotherapy alone was found to be equally effective as a combination of medication and psychotherapy. The study further revealed that no specific modality of psychotherapy was superior to others for treating different disorders. Moreover, psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers showed similar effectiveness as therapists, surpassing marriage counselors and long-term family doctors.

holding hands image portraying strength together

However, a perplexing question arises: Why have psychotherapeutic efforts not succeeded in reducing recidivism rates among the prison population? One potential reason could be the limited accessibility and affordability of psychotherapy within prisons. It is plausible that the psychotherapy mentioned earlier might not be readily available to inmates due to various constraints. Additionally, this type of psychotherapy may not adequately address the social, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual needs specific to the prison population. As a result, the desired positive outcomes may not have been achieved in the context of correctional treatment.

The Study of Religion in Criminology:

The study of religion in criminology has gained significant national and scholarly attention. Evans et al. (1995) conducted research that revealed engaging in religious activities consistently acted as a deterrent to adult criminal behavior, demonstrating a persistent and non-contingent inhibitory effect.

In 2004, during his State of the Union Address, President George W. Bush introduced a four-year, $300 million initiative aimed at reducing recidivism and the associated societal costs of re-incarceration. This initiative sought to leverage the resources and expertise of faith-based and community organizations. Consequently, the nation's first White House Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives was established in 2003, intending to allocate up to $10 billion annually to support these institutions in providing social services.

Faith Based Organizations, Do They Work:

Chuck Colson, a former White House counsel under President Nixon, who himself had spent time in prison due to the Watergate affair, launched the Inner Change Freedom Initiative in 1997 at a Texas prison. President Bush, then the state's governor, actively supported the program. Over time, the Inner Change program expanded to prisons in Kansas, Minnesota, Iowa, and federal penitentiaries. A comprehensive two-year study, conducted by the University of Pennsylvania and peer-reviewed at Harvard and Princeton between 2000 and 2002, compared Inner Change graduates with a similar group of released inmates who met program criteria but did not participate. The study found that Inner Change graduates had a 50% lower likelihood of being arrested and a 60% lower likelihood of being re-incarcerated.
These findings provide compelling evidence for the positive impact of religious and faith-based programs in reducing criminal recidivism and contributing to the rehabilitation of offenders.

In 1997, Johnson, Larson, and Pitts conducted a study to assess the impact of religious programs on institutional adjustment and recidivism rates in two groups of inmates from four adult male prisons in New York State. Their research revealed that inmates involved in "Prison Fellowship-sponsored programs" and actively participating in Bible studies were significantly less likely to be arrested during the follow-up period. This suggests that religion might not only inhibit delinquent and criminal activity but also facilitate the process and outcomes of prison rehabilitation.

Beyond engaging in complex theological discussions about the potential spiritual roles of religion, there is evidence showcasing the mental and physical health benefits associated with religion (Bergin, 1983, 1991; Gartner et al., 1991; Larson, Sherrill, and Lyons, 1994; Levin and Vanderpool, 1987, 1989). Moreover, there are scientific reasons to predict that religion can influence behavioral and social change. Religious teachings target antisocial values, emphasize accountability and responsibility, and alter cognitive approaches to conflict. Additionally, religion provides valuable social support and fosters social skills through interactions with religious individuals and communities (Bergin, 1991; Levin and Vanderpool, 1987; Martin and Carlson, 1988).

These findings highlight the potential benefits of integrating religious components into rehabilitation programs, as they may contribute to positive behavioral changes and social reintegration for incarcerated individuals.

The principles of effective treatment in rehabilitation work often align with the emphases found in religious programs for inmates. According to the U.S. Department of Justice (1993), religious programs are prevalent in correctional facilities, with approximately 32 percent of sampled inmates participating in activities such as Bible studies and church services. Self-improvement programs and counseling also attracted significant participation, with 20 percent and 17 percent of inmates involved, respectively.

Surprisingly, despite the considerable involvement in religious programs, only a limited number of published studies have explored the influence of religion and religious beliefs on crucial prison-related factors like inmates' adjustment and recidivism (Clearetal., 1992a, 1992b; B. Johnson, 1984, 1987a, 1987b). The scarcity of research in this area can be attributed to potential biases from both religious workers and scientific researchers. Religious workers, including chaplains, ministers, and volunteers, may lack the skills or willingness to undertake publishable research. Additionally, higher education has historically shown skepticism about the relevance of religion, leading to ambivalence among university researchers in studying spirituality or religion (Jones, 1994; Larson et al., 1994).

The Need For More Correctional Facilities Based on Truth is Evident:

The need for more comprehensive research in this area is evident, as exploring the impact of religious variables on inmates' adjustment and recidivism could provide valuable insights into the effectiveness of religious programs in correctional settings. Such research may also contribute to better-designed rehabilitation strategies that incorporate religious principles and enhance the potential for successful prisoner reintegration into society.

In his book "The Church and the Criminal," Arthur Hogles asserts that the power of God can bring about a complete transformation in criminals, eliminating their desire to break the law. He highlights the positive impact of evangelicalism as a social asset. However, Hogles notes that presently, there is no direct data conclusively demonstrating the effect of inmate conversion on recidivism.

Hogles suggests that if the root cause of all crime lies in man's sinful nature and the cultivation of sinful habits, it becomes the responsibility of churches to aid in the rehabilitation process. He points out that sinful lifestyles lead to guilt feelings, low self-esteem, and a negative self-image. Various issues like troubled family situations, substance abuse, and educational and employment challenges are symptoms of a failed identity.

Hogles proposes that if the conversion experience can lead to a positive self-image and a successful identity, Christian psychologists can play a vital role in preventing, intervening with, and rehabilitating criminals. By offering insights and support, they can contribute to the process of turning individuals away from criminal behavior and fostering positive change in their lives.

In recent times, there has been a notable surge in interest among spirit-filled evangelical scholars and counseling psychologists in biblically based approaches to counseling. These professionals are actively combining insights from psychology and religion, with a particular focus on the Christian faith, to enhance rehabilitative efforts.

One striking observation is that a vast number of individuals, regardless of their location, era, surroundings, or upbringing, have reported a profound personal connection with the God of the Universe through Jesus Christ. This common experience demonstrates that Christ is capable of fulfilling the deepest mental and spiritual needs of people from all walks of life, diverse intellects, age groups, races, and nationalities. This transformative relationship exerts a profound influence that extends beyond the confines of time and carries significance into eternity.

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Christian Psychotherapy for Convicts?

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James Slobodzien, Psy.D., CSAC, is a Hawaii licensed psychologist and certified substance abuse counselor who earned his doctorate in Clinical Psychology.

He is credentialed by the National Registry of Health Service Providers in Psychology.

He has over 20-years of mental health experience, primarily working in the fields of alcohol and substance abuse and behavioral addictions in hospital, prison, and court settings.

He is an adjunct professor of Psychology and also maintains a private practice as a mental health consultant.