Incarceration: The fine line between Science & Faith

Sooner or later we must face our own personal demons that led us down a rabbit hole to the places we are in this very moment.  Facing incarceration is scary, the feelings of doubt, shame, guilt, worthlessness, and anxiety are a long list down a dark hallway.  Facing Reentry after incarceration may first appear that brighter days are coming and when we are hit with the hard factual reality that being a felon is a lifelong stigma placed on our backs, similar to a scarlet letter a wakening comes with many of its own chains, some being self-created but most being societal.   At these times of despair in our lives, where and who do we turn to? 

Many Priests, Pastors, Reverends and Ministers practice spirituality and trauma treatment related to incarceration, they are called Prison Ministries. Prison ministry is America’s largest spiritual harvest field.  The United States locks up more people in prison than any other nation in the world.  More than 2 million people are incarcerated in federal, state and county jails, with more than twice that number on probation or parole, many of whom genuinely are seeking change, stability, and love in their lives.

So, what does one do when they find themselves home from prison and feeling isolated, guilty, shameful and although once professionally desirable, no longer is getting employment viable? Some turn to the one new thing they can associate with…Prison life and the emotional turmoil that comes with it.  But is this doing more harm than good?   Most of these individuals practicing “Prison Ministry” have been incarcerated themselves.  Religious beliefs and practices (spirituality) are traditions through which many people develop personal values and their own beliefs about meaning and purpose in life. But we must remember they are beliefs and not facts.  So, are Prison Ministries teaching beliefs or are they practicing healing? 

Anyone who has been incarcerated knows the sense of danger and the generally oppressive nation of prison makes it even more remarkable that prison can also be a place of reflection, exploration, discover, change and growth.  The fact that clinical therapeutic settings through a social worker or psychologist isn’t readily or easily available in prison brings prisoners to lean on each other.  Using religion and spirituality is such a common practice because of the law passed in 2000, called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).  This act dramatically reduced the ability of prisons and jails to restrict humanist, spiritual or religious accommodations because of security or practical concerns.  Just as prisons and jails must provide inmates with access to health care, they must now provide inmates with the ability to express and practice their belief and meaning systems.  The RLUIPA act makes it more viable for an inmate to find solace in redemption through religious beliefs.

The leaders of these religious services, although may have an educational background in Ministry, Divinity or Theology do not have the educational credentials or licensing to clinically diagnose anyone.  However, often words such as, “clinical”, “diagnosis”, “treatment” is found on their websites, testimonials and biographies.   They are not capable of the scientific approaches to addressing mental health issues with proven sociological and psychological treatments.  But they do play such an important role in the healing process.  When inside of prison there is a constant fear of never getting out, so religion becomes a constant sane place to be in, in a place where there is so much insanity.  We feel a sense of acceptance and a part of a common group which is imperative in a prison setting.

We do know there are not enough Licensed Clinical Social Workers or Psychologists that have experienced what one feels when preparing for prison or coming home from being incarcerated.  Often education, credentials and empathy are just not enough.  We need more, we need to feel connected with a therapist who can understand our trials and tribulations, someone who has been through the system and knows how to start to heal from the many mental health issues related to post incarceration, incarceration and reentry.

For one to truly feel whole again and emerge from the deep wounds left by poor choices, family mistrust, isolation, and trauma; science and faith must be present in one’s life. Collaboration needs to happen between the Mental Health Industry and the Prison Ministry Industry.  Science needs faith and without science how could you have faith?  The two together make the most powerful antidote to make one whole again, to live out the life that was mean to be lived.  A collaboration where one could be legally, clinically diagnosed and provided proper medication while the same time be surrounded with a therapeutic, spiritual setting of one’s peers to share the vast experiences and trauma related to incarceration.  The outcome would be simple… zero recidivism.

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