Christian Psychotherapy for Convicts?

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Repeated research studies have revealed that secular efforts at rehabilitation have been unsuccessful in preventing recidivism. Not one of the various approaches to psychological counseling has been able to demonstrate success statistically in helping inmates rehabilitate. Among nearly 300,000 prisoners released in 15 states in 1994, 67.5% were re-arrested within 3-years. A study of 1983 releases estimated 62.5% (Langan and Levin, Bureau of Justice Statistics, June 2002).

Historically, this has been true according to the publication of The Effectiveness of Correctional Treatment (Lipton, Martinson, & Wilks,1975), which highlighted the controversy as to whether correctional treatment reduces recidivism. This review examined a variety of treatments (e.g., individual and group psychotherapy and counseling, intensive casework, and skill development) and reported the results on a number of different outcome criteria (e.g., adjustment to prison life, vocational success, recidivism rate). The relationship between any single treatment or combination of programs and recidivism rate was far from being convincing. In a review of the Lipton study, Martinson concluded that “with few isolated exceptions, the rehabilitative efforts that have been reported so far have had no appreciable effect on recidivism.”

Psychotherapy has proven to be effective with most populations. Consumer Reports (Seligman, 1995) published an article that concluded patients who benefited very substantially from psychotherapy, that long-term treatment did considerably better than short-term treatment, and that psychotherapy alone did not differ in effectiveness from medication plus psychotherapy. Furthermore, no specific modality of psychotherapy did better than any other for any disorder psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers did not differ in their effectiveness as therapists and all did better than marriage counselors and long-term family doctoring. Patients whose length of therapy or choice of therapist was limited by insurance or managed care did worse.

So the question remains: Why have psychotherapeutic efforts been unsuccessful in reducing recidivism rates within the prison population? It is more than likely possible that the “psychotherapy” previously mentioned has not been made accessible or affordable to the prison population. It is also probable that this type of psychotherapy is not meeting this populations social, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual needs.

The study of religion in criminology on the other hand is now receiving national and scholarly attention. Evans, (et al. 1995), found that participation in religious activities was a persistent and non-contingent inhibitor of adult crime.

President George W. Bush in his 2004 State of the Union Address, proposed a four-year, $300 million initiative to reduce recidivism and the societal costs of re-incarceration by harnessing the resources and experience of faith-based and community organizations. In 2003, President Bush created the nation’s first White House Office of Faith-based and Community initiatives designed to send as much as $10 billion a year to these institutions to perform social services.

Chuck Colson, who was White House counsel under President Nixon and spent seven months in prison for his part in the Watergate affair, launched the Inner Change Freedom Initiative in 1997 at a Texas prison, with close enthusiastic support from President Bush, then the state’s governor. The program is now offered at prisons in Kansas, Minnesota and Iowa, and has also expanded into federal penitentiaries. A two-year study, conducted by the University of Pennsylvania (peer-reviewed at Harvard and Princeton) between 2000 and 2002, showed that Inner Change graduates, when compared with a similar group of released inmates – controlled for race, age and offense type – who met program criteria but did not enter the program, were 50% less likely to be arrested and 60% less likely to be re-incarcerated.

Johnson, Larson, and Pitts, (1997), after examining the impact of religious programs on institutional adjustment and recidivism rates in two matched groups of inmates from

four adult male prisons in New York State, found that inmates involvement in “Prison Fellowship-sponsored programs who were most active in Bible studies were significantly less likely to be arrested during the follow-up period. They also suggested that if religion can inhibit delinquent and criminal activity, why might it not facilitate the process as well as the outcomes of prison rehabilitation?

Aside from complex and difficult theological discussion about the possible spiritual roles of religion, as well as the evidence demonstrating the mental and physical health benefits of religion (Bergin 1983, 1991 Gartner et al. 1991 Larson, Sherrill, and Lyons 1994 Levin and Vanderpool 1987, 1989), there are scientific reasons to predict that religion might effect behavioral and social change. Religion targets antisocial values, emphasizes accountability and

responsibility, changes cognitive approaches to conflict, and provides social support and social skills through interaction with religious people and communities (Bergin 1991 Levin and Vanderpool 1987 Martin and Carlson1988).

Such emphases seem to be consistent with what many rehabilitation workers would call principles of effective treatment. Religious programs for inmates are among the most common forms of rehabilitative programs found in correctional facilities today as confirmed by the U.S. Department of Justice (1993), which reports representative data on America’s prison populations. Religious activities attracted the most participation: 32 percent of the sampled inmates reported involvement in religious activities such as Bible studies and church services, 20 percent reported taking part in self-improvement programs, and 17 percent in counseling.

These percentages are quite revealing, as nearly one inmate in three is involved in religious programs. Yet despite these figures, only a handful of published studies (Clearetal. 1992a, 1992b B. Johnson 1984, 1987a, 1987b) have examined the influence of religion and religious beliefs or practices on key prison predictor and outcome measures such as inmates’ adjustment and recidivism.

The scarcity of research about prisoners and the influence of religious variables on inmates’ adjustment and recidivism can be attributed to potential problematic biases held by both religious workers and scientific researchers (Larson et al. 1986 Larson et al. 1995 Larson, Sherrill, and Lyons 1994 Post 1995). Many chaplains, ministers, and religious volunteers who work in religious programs have been reluctant or have lacked the skills to undertake publishable research. This reluctance had been fueled by a broader historical skepticism about the relevance of religion held by many in higher education, and at best by university

researchers’ ambivalence in studying spirituality or religion (Jones 1994, Larson et al. 1994).

Arthur Hogles, author of “The Church and the Criminal,” proclaims, “many a criminal has been so completely transformed by the power of God that all desire to break the law has been eliminated. Evangelical religion is a social asset. Data, however, does not exist at present which directly demonstrates conclusively the effect of inmate conversion on recidivism. If in fact the root cause of all crime arises from man’s sinful nature and his cultivation of sinful habits, then it is the churches responsibility to help with the rehabilitation process. Sinful lifestyles create guilt feelings which lead to low self-esteem and a poor self-image. Bad family situations, alcohol and drug abuse, and education and employment problems are all symptoms of the development of a failure identity. If the conversion experience has a direct correlation to a positive self-image and a success identity, then Christian psychologists can offer insight into the prevention, intervention and rehabilitation of criminals.

Recently, there has been a growing interest in biblically based approaches to counseling by spirit filled evangelical scholars and counseling psychologists. They are integrating the research of psychology and religion particularly the Christian Faith, for rehabilitative efforts. The claims of great numbers of people confessing a personal relationship with the God of the Universe through His Son, Jesus Christ, are amazingly similar regardless of place, time, environment, or background. They confirm that Christ satisfies the deepest mental and spiritual needs of all intellects, ages, races and nationalities. This relationship carries an influence through time and into eternity.

For more info see: “Christian Psychotherapy & Criminal Rehabilitation,” by Dr. James Slobodzien at –

Addictions Recovery Management Services


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