Religious conversions are on the rise in American prisons, according to a recent national survey of chaplains by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
A majority of 730 chaplains surveyed say that inmates are switching religions a lot (26 percent) or some (51 percent, and the largest gains are Muslim (51 percent), Protestant (47 percent) and pagan or earth-based religions (34 percent).
But it is difficult to determine prisoners' motivations for converting, according to Cary Funk, senior researcher for the Pew Forum.
“Some of the switching may be short-lived,” Funk said, adding that it is unclear whether the conversions are based on authentic beliefs or access to certain privileges such as special food or religious holidays.
Another survey observation noted a high rate of religious extremism among Muslim (57 percent), and to lesser degrees pagan/earth based religions (39 percent) and Protestant (24 percent). But the survey also showed that chaplains do not believe that extremism poses a threat to prison security.
John Dilulio, professor of Politics, Religion, and Civil Society at the University of Pennsylvania, pointed out that violence in prisons has actually gone down since the 2005 Supreme Court decision upheld religious freedom rights for prisoners—giving ability to practice ceremonies and access religious literature.
Dilulio also said it is important to keep in mind the survey’s limitations — specifically that the modal respondent to the survey was a white, middle-aged, conservative, religious male, and the data collected are the opinions of those chaplains.
That said, those surveyed did emphasize the importance of rehabilitation programs, changing the system and rewarding good behavior with early release.
Tom O’Connor, CEO of Transforming Corrections and former chaplain, said chaplains believe prisons should allow for “earned time” to save money rather than cutting jobs or programs.
“We need more a more efficient, more compassionate and less costly criminal justice system,” O’Connor said.
To read the full report, visit the Pew Forum’s website HERE.
Sandi Villarreal is Associate Web Editor at Sojourners. Follow Sandi on Twitter @Sandi.