The Spirituality in Prisons Is Toxic

While authentic spirituality integrates the various elements of ordinary human life, the spirituality of prison disintegrates the human spirit. It does so first and foremost by denying everyday experiences and common human interaction to prisoners.
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Empty prison cell
Empty prison cell

Prison does indeed have a 'spirituality' and it reflects the spiritual condition of American society.

Pope Francis and countless others in the United States--teachers, counselors, administrators, health care providers, prison personnel and prisoners--who this week find themselves inside barbed wire-capped walls understand the spirituality of prison.

They know how prison suffocates what David Perrin describes as a "fundamental capacity" in human beings. This capacity--this spirituality--is one that belongs to the human spirit. It is the capacity for authentic self-awareness in ordinary life. In his sociology of spirituality Perrin calls it "consciousness" and "self-consciousness," two integral parts to being ordinarily human.

This capacity can have God at its center or not, and whether it's humanist, Christian or Sufi, it concerns the meaning of reality in which people live. "In their healthiest and most helpful forms," Perrin says, "the goal of spiritualities is to construct hope and meaning in the midst of daily life." A key factor for healthy and authentic spiritualities is authentic relationships, relationships characterized by intimacy, love, interdependence, trust, respect and mutuality. In other words, the intentional and conscious care for others in community sits at the very center of an individual's authentic capacity for being human.

While authentic spirituality integrates the various elements of ordinary human life, the spirituality of prison disintegrates the human spirit. It does so first and foremost by denying everyday experiences and common human interaction to prisoners. Second, it replaces those relationships with scripted, stressed, aggressive, competitive, distrustful, and suspicious interactions constantly negotiated through favors, behavior points and discipline.

Prison is a state of permanent visibility--of observation--in which a person's spiritual nature is put to an extreme test. Often broken is a person's core identity, an outcome intentionally sought by the rigors of imprisonment. In fact, many American Christians believe this to be a necessary process and desired outcome. Christians often use bible-based programming in a manner similar to that if 19th century Indian boarding schools, seeking to "kill the Indian, save the man." In prison, however, it is the felon who is to be killed in order to save the man.

Many state funded faith-based programs take a gentler approach to the reform of the prisoner. Prison Fellowship Ministries' InnerChange program promotes spiritual transformation through bible study and religious counseling paired with a softening of the prisoner's institutionalized lifestyle. This program, as do others like it, understands the necessity of life's ordinary features--especially healthy relationships free from control and constant observation--for human spiritual health. That's why they work deals with Corrections Departments to provide a more relaxed spaces for participants.

It seems to me that faith-based programs weigh normalizing relationships for prisoners just as much as they emphasize the faith element. It is my hunch that, because inmates enrolled in the program have often self-selected for faith reasons, the role of faith formation in reform diminishes in comparison to acquiring more normalized living space within the prison's walls.

My point is this: prison is utterly dehumanizing because it disintegrates the normal activities and relationships in which humans develop an authentic spirituality. It is also the preferred method of punishment for over 2.2 million persons in the United States. Rather than reproduce widely available data about the shape and scope of our culture of mass incarceration, I want to focus on prisons as a symptom of a deeper and darker spirituality.

The spiritual condition of the American experiment is grounded in the historic and evergreen experience of life disintegration. This might seem counter-intuitive to many Americans, especially white Americans, yet, it is a condition thrown into sharp relief when we consider how American society treats select groups of people according to ethnicity and race. Or, to use terms preferred by many Americans, select groups of criminals, illegals, thugs, felons, and perps. America has profited from condemning the ordinary lives of many of its citizens.

I'm thinking of the overwhelming data pushing the current prison reform movement. I'm thinking of the Gray Wastes described by Ta-Nehisi Coates in his latest article in The Atlantic. Coates documents the devastating effects of what I call a spirituality of disintegration on black Americans, from grossly disproportionate incarceration rates for Americans compared to the rest of the world, and for black Americans compared to white Americans. "Peril is generational for black people in America--and incarceration is our current mechanism for ensuring that the peril continues," he laments.

The data is available at every internet turn. Draconian drug laws have pushed more black men into jails and prisons than make decent wages in hurting communities. The web of consequences from this kind of "solution," to what Coates traces through a century as the "black" problem, vibrates as the delicates threads of family, economy, health, and social wellbeing in minority communities are agitated. As Coates says, "Mass incarceration is, ultimately, a problem of troublesome entanglements."

I want to suggest that mass incarceration is more than troublesome entanglements. It is the surface activity of a society that tolerates dehumanizing conditions and activities with an astonishingly clear conscience. It is the spiritual condition of a society that believes criminal activity is as much a part of a person's identity as race and ethnicity, even though we pretend to be guided by mutual bonds of affection.

The spiritual condition I speak of is one that self-consciously and knowingly disintegrates the meaning of ordinary life for some people more than others through systemized activities like mass incarceration. America, in spite of its valorized image, makes it incomparably difficult for some groups of people to live out a spiritual orientation in the real circumstances of life. Coates calls it a dilemma. I call it, drawing on the language of philosopher Charles Taylor, a spiritual framework without which we wouldn't be America. I call it spiritual discrimination.

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