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First Coast Connect with Melissa Ross

Florida Study Shows Religion Helps Keep Ex-Cons Out Of Jail

Deviant Art

A new peer-reviewed study finds that inmates leaving prison have used the power of spirituality successfully to avoid going back to a life of crime.The 15-month project explored the faith practices of successful ex-offenders in Florida.

Dr. Michael Hallett, professor of criminology at the University of North Florida, and Steve McCoy, co-researcher and the founder of Florida’s first faith-based prison program under Governor Jeb Bush, joined Melissa Ross to discuss the study.

In 2002, McCoy was part of a group asked by then Governor Bush to work towards the establishment of an all-volunteer, faith-based dormitory at Lawtey Correctional Institution.

"Prior to that time, most of the programs offered in prisons were more like revival services," he said.

"When we went in we decided to not only bring a spiritual aspect but certainly to do programming that would be helpful to men returning to the community."

"Things like parenting, financial management, anger management, computer skills," he said.

The faith and prayer practices of 25 of those ex-convicts who attribute their desistance to their faith were then studied for 15 months.

The study stemmed from a previous study looking at what criminologists believed to be the two factors most important to preventing future offenses; employment and marriage.

"In the course of her research she kept being interrupted by her respondents with unsolicited protestations of faith," Hallett explained. "As in, 'Yeah the job helped, and the wife helped, but what really changed me was my faith'."

Hallett and McCoy picked up where that study left off with a focus on the importance of faith and religion.

The study found, through a series of intensive life-history interviews, that these men experienced behavior change and identity transformation through their religious practice.

This type of study is difficult, they said, because subjects cannot be compelled to participate under the constitutional separation of church and state. Therefore all the respondents had to volunteer for the study.

"Upwards of 90 percent of people who profess any religion in prison profess Christianity, so all of our respondents are self-professed Christians," Hallett said. "What we heard from them was that they rely on scripture to not run from their past, but to face it."

"In other words, it's not an opiate or an escape mechanism, it is a vehicle through which they actually confront their misdeeds and own up to them."

Hallett said many people might not realize that more than 6,000 inmates in Florida participating in faith-based programs.

"Most of the time in American corrections, we fail," he said. "The starting point of this conversation is a 68 percent recidivism rate."

"For critics out there who might say we really ought not to be doing this, success in American corrections is the exception and not the rule."

Hallett said there is a host of emerging research looking at utilizing yoga in prisons to reduce recidivism, noting that Christianity is not the only source of rehabilitative focus.

"The reality of it is though that rehabilitative resources in American corrections have been decimated by budget cuts," he said. "Often times the only programs available for men in prison are so-called faith-based programs."

Hallett and McCoy said they paid for the study themselves with no compensation. It has been accepted for publication in a forthcoming volume of the International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology.

You can follow Melissa Ross on Twitter @MelissainJax  and Patrick Donges @patrickhdonges.

Melissa Ross joined WJCT in 2009 with 20 years of experience in broadcasting, including stints in Cincinnati, Chicago, Orlando and Jacksonville. During her career as a television and radio news anchor and reporter, Melissa has won four regional Emmys for news and feature reporting.
Patrick Donges served as WJCT's Digital Content Editor from August 2013 - August 2014.