American Journal of Criminal Justice

, Volume 43, Issue 3, pp 694–723 | Cite as

Prison Chaplains: Perceptions of Criminality, Effective Prison Programming Characteristics, and the Role of Religion in the Desistance from Crime

  • Andrew S. DenneyEmail author


Through performing a content-analysis on 19 interview transcriptions with full-time prison chaplains employed by a Midwestern state department of corrections, this study examines the beliefs of prison chaplains regarding causes of criminal offending and views on rehabilitation. Specifically, this study examines three research questions of (1) what factors do prison chaplains perceive to be causative for criminal offending; (2) what characteristics, treatment, and/or programming do prison chaplains view as essential for offenders turning away from a life of crime; and (3) what role, if any, does religion/ faith factor into one desisting from crime. For perceived reasons for criminal offending, four individual themes emerged of illicit drug-use, poor social support, a ‘criminal mind,’ and low impulse-control. For effective prison programming practices, a total of three themes emerged being programming that emphasized altering ‘criminal thinking,’ strong social support, and emphasizing morality. For the role of religion/faith in the desistance from crime, three unique themes emerged of religion/faith provides moral accountability and a sense of purpose, offers community, and that religion/faith is not necessary. Policy implications, limitations, and future directions for research are discussed.


Chaplains Religion Criminal desistance Faith-based programming 


  1. Beckford, J. A. (1999). Rational choice theory and prison chaplaincy: The chaplain’s dilemma. The British Journal of Sociology, 50(4), 671–685.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Boston, J., & Manville, D. E. (2011). Prisoner’s self-help litigation manual. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Charmaz, K. (2006). Constructing grounded theory: A practical guide through qualitative analysis. Thousand Oaks: Sage.Google Scholar
  4. Clear, T. R., Hardyman, P. L., Stout, B., Lucken, K., & Dammer, H. R. (2000). The value of religion in prison: An inmate perspective. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 16(1), 53–74.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Clear, T., Stout, B., Dammer, H. R., Kelly, L., Hardyman, P. L., & Shapiro, C. (1992). Does involvement in religion help prisoners adjust to prison? NCCD Focus, 1–7.Google Scholar
  6. Cullen, F. T., Link, B. G., Wolfe, N. T., & Frank, J. (1985). The social dimensions of correctional officer stress. Justice Quarterly, 2(4), 505–533.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Davies, S., & Cook, S. (1999). Neglect or punishment? Failing to meet the needs of women post-release. In S. Cook & S. Davies (Eds.), Harsh punishment: International experiences of women’s imprisonment (pp. 272–290). Boston: Northeastern University Press.Google Scholar
  8. Denney, A. S. (2017a). Prison chaplains: Inmate/correctional officer role perceptions and conflict management in modern corrections. Corrections: Policy, Practice, and Research, 2(3), 189–210.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Denney, A. S. (2017b). Backgrounds and motivations of prison chaplains. In K. R. Kerley’s (Ed.), Religion in prison. Prager: Westport.Google Scholar
  10. Dodge, M., & Pogrebin, M. R. (2001). Collateral consequences of imprisonment for women: Complications of reintegration. The Prison Journal, 81(1), 42–54.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Ebaugh, H. R., Chafetz, J. S., & Pipes, P. F. (2006). The influence of evangelicalism on government funding of faith-based social service organizations. Review of Religious Research, 47(4), 380–392.Google Scholar
  12. Finn, P. (1998). Correctional officer stress: A cause for concern and additional help. Federal Probation, 62(2), 65–74.Google Scholar
  13. Garland, B., Wodahl, E. J., & Mayfield, J. (2011). Prisoner reentry in a small metropolitan community: Obstacles and policy recommendations. Criminal Justice Policy Review, 22(1), 90–110.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Gaubatz, D. L. (2005). RLUIPA at four: Evaluating the success and constitutionality of RLUIPA’s prisoner provisions. Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, 28(2), 501–607.Google Scholar
  15. Girshick, L. B. (1999). No safe haven: Stories of women in prison. Boston: Northeastern University Press.Google Scholar
  16. Glaser, B. G., & Strauss, A. L. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory: Strategies for qualitative research. New York: Aldine.Google Scholar
  17. Grissom, B. (2011). Texas prison chaplains pray, plead for funds. The Texas tribune. Retrieved from
  18. Guest, G., Bunce, A., & Johnson, L. (2006). How many interviews are enough? An experiment with data saturation and variability. Field Methods, 18(1), 59–82.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Gunn, J. (2008). Georgia doc cutting part time chaplains. AccessNorthGA. Retrieved from
  20. Hicks, A. M. (2008). Role fusion: The occupational socialization of prison chaplains. Symbolic Interaction, 31(4), 400–421.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Hicks, A. M. (2012). Learning to watch out: Prison chaplains as risk managers. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 41(6), 636–667.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Holzer, H., Raphael, S., & Stoll, M. (2003). Employer demand for ex-offenders: Recent evidence from Los Angeles. Paper presented at the Urban Institute Roundtable on Offender Re-Entry, New York. Retrieved from
  23. Horney, J., Osgood, D. W., & Marshall, I. H. (1995). Criminal careers in the short-term: Intra-individual variability in crime and its relation to local life circumstances. American Sociological Review, 60(5), 655–673.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Jucovy, L. (2006). Just out: Early lessons from the Ready4Work reentry institute. Field series report. Philadelphia: Public/Private Ventures.Google Scholar
  25. Keller, B. (2015, June 29). Prison revolt: A former law-and-order conservative takes a lead on criminal-justice reform. The New Yorker Retrieved from
  26. Kerley, K. R., Bartkowski, J. P., Matthews, T. L., & Emond, T. L. (2010). From the sanctuary to the slammer: Exploring the narratives of evangelical prison ministry workers. Sociological Spectrum, 30(5), 504–525.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Kerley, K. R., & Copes, H. (2009). “Keepin’ my mind right:” Identity maintenance and religious social support in the prison context. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 53(2), 228–244.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Kerley, K. R., Matthews, T. D., & Shoemaker, J. (2009). A simple plan, a simple faith: Chaplains and lay ministers in Mississippi prisons. Review of Religious Research, 51(1), 87–103.Google Scholar
  29. Kifer, M., Hemmens, C., & Stohr, M. K. (2003). The goals of corrections: Perspectives from the line. Criminal Justice Review, 28(1), 47–69.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Mahoney, A., & Pargament, K. I. (2004). Sacred changes: Spiritual conversion and transformation. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 60(5), 481–492.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Maruna, S. (2001). Making good: How ex-convicts reform and rebuild their lives. Washington: American Psychological Association.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Maruna, S., Wilson, L., & Curran, K. (2006). Why god is often found behind bars: Prison conversions and the crisis of self-narrative. Research in Human Development, 3(2&3), 161–184.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. McAdams D. (1993) The stories we live by: Personal myths and the making of the self. New York: William Morrow and Co., Inc. Google Scholar
  34. Morse, J. M. (1994). Designing funded qualitative research. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of Qualitative Research (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks: Sage.Google Scholar
  35. Petersilia, J. (2001). Prisoner reentry: Public safety and reintegration challenges. The Prison Journal, 81(3), 360–375.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Petersilia, J. (2005). Hard time: Ex-offenders returning home after prison. Corrections Today, 67(2), 66–72.Google Scholar
  37. Pew Research Center, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. (2012). Religion in prisons: A 50-state survey of prison chaplains. Retrieved from
  38. Quinn, J. F. (1999). Corrections: A concise introduction. Prospect Heights: Waveland Press.Google Scholar
  39. Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc.Google Scholar
  40. Seiter, R. P., & Kadela, K. R. (2003). Prisoner reentry: What works, what does not, and what is promising. Crime & Delinquency, 49(3), 360–388.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Severance, T. A. (2004). Concerns and coping strategies of women inmates concerning release: “It’s going to take somebody in my corner”. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 38(4), 73–97.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Sheridan, W. (2012). The easiest cut is the deepest: Why states are getting rid of prison chaplains. Commonweal magazine. Retrieved from
  43. Skotnicki, A. (2000). Religion and the development of the American penal system. Lanham: University Press of America.Google Scholar
  44. Somers, I., Baskin, D. R., & Fagan, J. (1999). Getting out of the life: Crime desistance by female street offenders. In P. Cromwell (Ed.), In their own words: Criminals on crime, an anthology (pp. 87–96). Los Angeles: Roxbury Publishing. Google Scholar
  45. St. Gerard, V. (2003, July). Tight budgets affect prison chaplain jobs. Corrections Today, 65(4), 13.Google Scholar
  46. Sundt, J. L., & Cullen, F. T. (1998). The role of the contemporary prison chaplain. The Prison Journal, 78(3), 271–298.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Sundt, J. L., & Cullen, F. T. (2007). Doing God’s work behind bars: Chaplains’ reactions to employment in prison. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 45(3–4), 131–157.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Sundt, J. L., Dammer, H. R., & Cullen, F. T. (2002). The role of the prison chaplain in rehabilitation. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 35(3–4), 59–86.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Tewksbury, R., Higgins, G. E., & Denney, A. S. (2012). Measuring work stress among correctional staff: A Rasch measurement approach. Journal of Applied Measurement, 13(4), 392–402.Google Scholar
  50. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (2010). “Behind bars II: Substance abuse and America’s prison population.” Retrieved from:’s-prison-population. Accessed 8 Nov 2017.
  51. Thibaut, J. (1982, April). ‘To pave the way to penitence:’ Prisoners and discipline at the Eastern State Penitentiary, 1829–1835. The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. Retrieved from
  52. U.S. Department of Justice (2016). “Update on the Justice Department’s enforcement of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act: 2010–2016.” Retrieved from Accessed 24 Oct 2017.
  53. U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics. (2009). “Correctional populations.” Retrieved from Accessed 23 Sept 2014.
  54. U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Prisons. (2004). “Program statement: Religious beliefs and practices.” Retrieved from Accessed 13 Oct 2017.
  55. Ulmer, J. T. (2001). Intermediate sanctions: A comparative analysis of the probability and severity of recidivism. Sociological Inquiry, 71(2), 164–193.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Ward, T., & Marshall, B. (2007). Narrative identity and offender rehabilitation. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 51(3), 279–297.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Warr, M., & Stafford, M. (1984). Public goals of punishment and support for the death penalty. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 21(2), 95–111.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Zinnbauer, B. J., & Pargament, K. I. (1998). Spiritual conversion: A study of religious change among college students. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 37(1), 161–180.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Southern Criminal Justice Association 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of West FloridaPensacolaUSA

Personalised recommendations