Wednesday, May 2, 2012

More From Volokh: Do Faith-Based Prisons Work?

We've recently featured a couple of Alexander Volokh's new articles about prison privatization.  A third new one that deserve mention (he is amazingly prolific) is Do Faith-Based Prisons Work? in  63 Ala. L. Rev. 43 (2011) (SSRN has an earlier version here).  In this piece, Volokh cuts new ground, exploring an issue largely ignored by the academic literature up to now.  Here is the abstract: 
This Article examines everything we know about the effectiveness of
faith-based prisons, which is not very much. Most studies cannot be taken seriously because they are tainted by the “self-selection problem.” It is hard to determine the effect of faith-based prison programs because they are voluntary, and volunteers are more likely to be motivated to change and are therefore already less likely to commit infractions or be re-arrested. This problem is the same one that education researchers have struggled with in determining whether private schools are better than public schools. The only credible studies done so far compare participants with nonparticipants who volunteered for the program but were rejected. Some studies in this category find no effect, but some do find a modest effect. But even those that find an effect are subject to additional critiques: for instance, participants may have benefited from being exposed to treatment resources that non-participants were denied. Thus, based on current research, there is no strong reason to believe that faith-based prisons work. However, there is also no strong reason to believe that they do not work. I conclude with thoughts on how faith-based prison programs might be improved, and offer a strategy that would allow such experimentation to proceed consistent with the Constitution.
I''m somewhat sympathetic with my fellow evangelicals trying to put their faith into action and to have an impact on some of the most broken parts of our society; and I presume, in a mostly hopeful way, that the original motivation behind these prisons was a rehabilitative agenda, which overlaps somewhat with the concept of redemption in Christianity (many religious people would simply equate redemption and rehabilitation, but I attribute this to believers today being weak on theology; the two are distinct concepts).  That being said, I worry about the "message" (as well as the significance) of evangelicals incarcerating people, especially when taken together with this disturbing new essay from my hero William Stuntz about the historical correlation between evangelical political power and the size of the country's prison population. And personally, I cannot think of anything more likely to corrupt a religious movement or organization than soliciting and profiting from government contracts.  And then there's New Testament passages like 2 Timothy 2:4 (apparently warning Christians not to get entangled in worldly "civilian" affairs) and 3 John 1:7 (which seems to praise evangelical Christians who seek no financial support for their movement from those who are not part of their faith community). Even the messianic prophecies in the Old Testament (which evangelical Christians believe apply to their own mission today) speak of freeing prisoners from their dungeons, not keeping them there (see, e.g., Isaiah 42:7; Isaiah 51:14; Isaiah 61:1 (quoted in the Gospels); and Zechariah 9:11-12).  So when religious folks want to run penal institutions, I don't get it - speaking as a religious person.

Alexander Volokh is a professor at Emory Law School, and is emerging as a leading voice in the intellectual discussion of privatization.

- Dru Stevenson

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