By Forrest Lee Jones
Journalism Guild Writer
Religion behind bars can have a major positive impact on prisoners turning their lives around, a university researcher reports.
“There is a humanity that I think the prison church embodies that is extraordinary,” said Jason Sexton in an interview with the Orange County Register. Sexton is a University Honors lecturer at the California State University at Fullerton who specializes in Theology.
His research focuses on the interracial and intergenerational components of prison churches. Sexton was incarcerated for three years in the 1990s by the California Youth Authority.
He hopes his research will disclose more about churches in California prisons, especially those associated with the Christian faith, the Feb. 25 story stated.
The report says that Sexton plans to address questions, including; If there is hope for rehabilitation while in prison? What types of reformation agents are available? Why do incarcerated individuals join religious communities?
He said he intends to interview about 50 formerly incarcerated people, most of them former California prisoners in for a significant time.
Sexton said the reasons inmates turn to prison churches include motivation, direction, meaning for life, hope for the future, peace of mind, positive self-esteem and lifestyle changes.
San Quentin State Prison Chaplain Mardi Ralph Jackson said reformatory tools aim at changing lives include Bible studies, seminary classes, music and youth ministries.
“The principles of God’s word give these men the desire to change and live a more lawful life,” the chaplain commented in an interview.
San Quentin’s Catholic Priest Father George Williams, S.J., said, “It’s not the program itself that changes the inmate; it’s the inmates wanting to change themselves.”
Williams said in an interview some inmates embrace religion because they are looking for meaning, purpose and direction in their lives. They come to a point where they realize they must change. They are men who were raised up in the church, fell away and now have come back.
However, Sexton discovered other less-honorable reasons why inmates join a church, such as protection, a designated time and place to meet with other inmates, interaction with women volunteers, and access to prison resources.
Most noteworthy to Sexton is how races interact in prison churches. “Your race dictates everything (in prison),” he said. “It showcases the structures that are at play in the prisons.”
“But when it comes to prison churches, race doesn’t seem to be as significant. Prison churches transcend racial barriers, and participants will often assist one another in overcoming hardships like drug addiction and violence,” Sexton said.
Prison churches also transcend generational factors of prisoners. Sexton is interested in whether age is a factor in how churches attract or affect participants.
“When it works, it seems to me that Christians uniquely care for their own in ways that display a special solidarity,” he commented.
Sexton reported the California prison population has nearly grown six-fold since 1980. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reports the state’s prison population is about 123,000.
The issue is hard-pressing because many incarcerated individuals in California prisons will one day be released and should be able to transition back to the workforce and positively contribute to society, Sexton said.
“My relationship with God has given me hope, faith and love. I hope to pastor a church someday,” said Trent Capell, educational minister for the San Quentin Garden Chapel.
“Religion has given me strength to endure, peace of mind and hope for the future. When I’m released someday, I hope to restore my community,” said Garden Chapel Clerk Darrell “Obadiah” Flowers.
Sexton said he believes alliances between prison churches and outside churches benefit the transition of former inmates back into society.
“The different churches that come into the Garden Chapel to minister to the inmate congregation serve as an example to them and encourage them to want to live a better life, once they’re released,” said Chaplain Jackson.
“Volunteers who come into the Catholic Chapel to fellowship with the inmate congregation remind them that they are still part of the Catholic Church,” said Chaplain Williams.
“I am curious to see how theology can help us understand (California prisons) better and do better with it,” says Sexton.