he widespread financial crisis affecting so many state governments has created a situation of uncertainty for the future of prison chaplaincy. As states have been forced to cut overall spending, some of them have also eliminated state paid prison chaplains from their organizational charts.
The rationale given by some legislators in these states is that religious services can be provided by volunteers at no cost. This reasoning reflects a limited understanding of the chaplain's role as one who provides worship services and sacramental rites, but it overlooks important issues such as facilitating the constitutional rights of all offenders to exercise religion and providing skilled pastoral care. In the long run, these roles and others may save the state more money in terms of fewer lawsuits and effective treatment programs.

Prison chaplaincy services also may provide a benefit in lowering facility infractions and reducing recidivism. There is growing evidence to support the efficacy of cognitive-behavioral programs in the correctional environment; however, few formal studies have been conducted on faith based cognitive programs.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Research

(1) Click for end notes Studies by Paul Gendreau and Don Andrews indicate that a cognitive behavioral approach to treatment offers the best results for offenders. In cognitive therapy, the client and counselor collaborate to understand the client's dysfunctional thinking patterns and develop treatment strategies.

(2) Click for end notes A cognitive behavioral approach seems to be quite compatible with pastoral counseling and education aimed at treating criminal thinking patterns. This approach assumes a relationship between events, thoughts, feelings and behaviors. In addition, it uncovers dysfunctional thinking patterns that lead to bad feelings and antisocial behaviors.

... the most effective programs begin by assessing the factors that
contribute to each offender's probability of continued criminal activity,
and then targeting these needs with appropriate programming.

This is compatible with religious training because the same principles can be supported from a biblical perspective. Proverbs 1:7 (new revised standard version) states, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge." The same concept is expressed in Romans 12:2 (new revised standard version), which states, "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the will of God what is good, and pleasing and perfect."

As Rebecca Propst points out in her book, Psychotherapy In a Religious Framework: Spirituality In the Emotional Healing Process, cognitive therapy techniques and Christian ideas can be blended to provide an effective healing environment. Propst notes that cognitive therapy helps in the healing partnership by giving the client a rationale for the treatment procedures, encouraging self awareness and teaching new ways of thinking more flexibly and productively.

(3) Click for end notes Samuel Yochelson and Stanton Samenow contend that offenders think differently than pro social people inmates do what they do because of the way they think.

Yochelson and Samenow identified 10 thinking errors that are exhibited to a higher degree by inmates than nonoffenders:

Correcting thinking errors requires attacking them from several fronts at once. Yochelson and Samenow formed therapeutic communities with a high level of accountability. Inmates were taught to recognize thinking errors and begin to put on mental brakes whenever they caught themselves engaged in one. They spent several hours a day, several days a week in group therapy reporting their thinking patterns. When not in the group, they were asked to recognize and keep a log of their thoughts and actions, which were reported back to the group. A strict code of honesty, even about apparent, trivial matters, was mandatory in order to develop pro social patterns of thinking and behaving. This approach, developed with offenders who were on probation or parole, resulted in lower parole violations and reduced recidivism.' (4) Click for end notes

Boyd Sharp, while working as a clinical supervisor of the Alcohol and Drug Treatment Program at Powder River Correctional Facility in Baker City, Ore., set up a 50 bed therapeutic program based on Samenow and Yochelson's model. When treated inmates were compared with matched untreated inmates, the program demonstrated reductions in reincarceration and conviction for the first two years after release from prison. Overall, depending on the measure and the period of observation, inmates treated in the program had recidivism rates between 5 percent and 40 percent lower than comparable untreated offenders. Two years after release from prison, clients had 33 percent fewer convictions, and 24 percent fewer revocations than their matched comparison group.' (5) Click for end notes

Wyatt Mullinax is a social worker and pastoral counselor in the Fort Wayne, Ind., area who specializes in counseling individuals and families in trouble with the law. He too applies the principles of cognitive restructuring to help clients recognize and correct antisocial attitudes. Adapting material from Yochelson and Samenow, Mullinax developed a curriculum for the Indiana Department of Correction that explains the common thinking errors that lead people to deviant behavior and then shows how the Bible addresses each of these errors.

Effective Programs

In August 1999, the National Institute of Corrections conducted a three-day workshop in Indianapolis titled "Promoting Public Safety Using Effective Interventions With Offenders." The conference was sponsored by the Indiana DOC and the NIC What Works Committee. At this conference, Edward Latessa, head of the Division of Criminal Justice at the University of Cincinnati, identified program targets that were characteristics of the effective programs he has evaluated in his role as an NIC consultant. According to Latessa, the most effective programs begin by assessing the factors that contribute to each offender's probability of continued criminal activity, and then targeting these needs with appropriate programming.

Some examples of risk factors include antisocial attitudes, associates, personality characteristics, values and beliefs, and a history of substance abuse and general problems at home, school or work. Some promising targets for change based on these risk factors include changing antisocial attitudes, managing antisocial feelings, reducing antisocial peer associations, promoting familial affection/ communication, increasing self control and problem solving skills, replacing the skill of lying, stealing and aggression with more pro social alternatives, reducing chemical dependencies and substance abuse, and ensuring that the client is able to recognize risky situations and has a concrete and well-rehearsed plan for dealing with those situations.

Latessa also addressed the effectiveness of various treatment modalities used to target these risk factors and deduced that cognitive behavioral treatment approaches were the most effective because they address the connection between criminal thinking and criminal behavior.

(6) Click for end notes A third factor in effective programs is paying attention to responsivity, which involves trying a variety of approaches to meet individuals' needs in order to increase the probability of cooperation in the treatment program. In their book, Motivational Interviewing, William R. Miller and Stephen Rollnick suggest five principles that contribute to client cooperation: express empathy, develop discrepancy between present behavior and important goals, avoid argumentation, roll with resistance and support self-efficacy as the client is responsible for choosing and carrying out personal change.

Research indicates that certain elements in a person's life have a high correlation with criminal activity. Andrews and Bonta have developed an instrument, the Level of Service Inventory Revised, which predicts infractions within the correctional setting and recidivism upon release by examining 10 areas of a person's life: criminal history, education/employment, financial situation, family/marital relationships, accommodation, leisure/recreation pursuits, companions, alcohol/drug problems, emotional/personal problems and attitudes/ orientation. The top five major risk factors are antisocial attitudes, values and beliefs, antisocial associates, a history of antisocial behavior, antisocial personality characteristics, and general problems at home, school or work.'

(7) Click for end notes When an offender is imprisoned, some of the risk factors associated with recidivism are temporarily beyond control. However, several of the factors can be addressed. Most prisons have educational and vocational programs, substance abuse treatment and other programs aimed at helping to change antisocial attitudes and thinking.

Since NIC was established, a lot has been learned about what works and what does not work in correctional programs such as substance abuse treatment, therapeutic communities that address criminal thinking and various types of community corrections. However, to date, NIC has not conducted a study of religious programming as a separate entity. Most, if not all, of the facilities it has evaluated offer religious services to the inmates, but the impact of those services as a separate component of treatment has not been evaluated.

Outcome Based Measures

The Center for Social Research Inc., a nonprofit research company that helps organizations develop, fund and evaluate social programs, conducted a study of the impact of religious programs at Lieber Correctional Institute (LCI), a maximum security adult male facility in Lieber, S.C. The study, which was funded by Prison Fellowship, the South Carolina DOC and the Center for Social Research Inc., examined religious programs and services and their impact on infractions at LCI. From Jan.1 through Dec. 31, 1996, LCI's chaplain's office entered data into a computerized system that maintained the number of times each inmate attended any religious program by month. It also recorded what activities were held every month. In addition, data of the infractions committed by inmates during the year were provided by the facility. The study found that mere attendance at religious programs versus nonattendance was not statistically significant as a predictor of infractions, but the rate of attendance was.

The authors of the LCI study report noted that, "There was no difference between the religious and nonreligious groups in the likelihood of having an infraction. However, we did find that the more religious sessions an inmate attended compared to how many he possibly could have attended, the less likely he was to have an infraction. This means that religious programming does help to reduce infractions. That is, the impact of religious programming derives not from the fact of attending religious programs but from going to religious programs more often."

(8) Click for end notes This study did not look at the content of religious study but rather the level of attendance and the outcome in terms of behavior. The report's authors theorize that two basic components of the religious programs were responsible for their impact: the pro social modeling provided by the religious volunteers who were described as highly involved and attached to family, work, education, politics and church; and the transformation of a person's life as a result of religious conversion.

Putnamville Correctional Facility

At Putnamville Correctional Facility in Greencastle, Ind., the chaplain conducted a formal study of the effectiveness of a faith based program that focused on changing criminal thinking and behavior. Putnamville is a low to medium security adult male facility with about 2,000 inmates. Materials developed by Mullinax for his program, Biblical Correctives to Thinking Errors, were adapted for the curriculum. Individuals selected for the study shared the following characteristics:

These criteria were important for a number of reasons. These individuals were selected because they were not influenced by other programs, had shown a commitment to study and work on their spirituality and demonstrated a willingness to look at the connection between one's thinking and one's actions. In addition, the "stinking thinking" that 12 step programs discuss is similar to the thinking errors that cognitive restructuring programs address, so it was important that graduates of the Christian 12 Step Program participated. This criteria combined with the desire to participate were part of the receptivity factor that studies on effective correctional programs have identified as a crucial ingredient.

Once the criteria were set and opportunities to sign up were announced, 46 inmates responded. Of this group, eight were transferred or discharged during the study, reducing the total number to 38. The experimental group comprised 10 people who received instruction on correcting thinking errors. The remaining 28 were placed on a waiting list and became the control group.

(9) Click for end notes Facility infractions were selected as the measurement criteria. Research by Andrews correlates infractions within a correctional facility with recidivism after release? The more an offender breaks the rules while incarcerated, the more likely that person is to break the law upon release and return to prison. In Indiana, an infraction is the violation of any of the offenses listed in its publication, Adult Disciplinary Procedures No. 02 04 101. For the purposes of this study, the number of infractions committed by members of the experimental and control groups during the period of the study was documented (see Table 1). The actual data collection extended about three weeks past the final class date.

The study found that mere attendance at religious programs versus
nonattendance was not statistically significant as a predictor
of infractions, but the rate of attendance was.

To collect the data, the unit team manager was provided a list of the participants who were in both the experimental and control group. The list was then distributed to casework managers who supervise correctional counselors assigned to individual housing units. They did not know who was in which group. At the end of the three month period, a memorandum listing any infractions and the code number of the offense from the Adult Disciplinary Procedures was given to the chaplain.

The class on Biblical Correctives to Thinking Errors met once a week for approximately two hours. The class lasted 12 weeks, consisting of one introductory session, 10 sessions focusing on each thinking error, and a closing session. Class time involved a combination of mini lectures, class discussions and small group work. In the mini lectures, the chaplain described a particular thinking error and gave examples of statements people might make when thinking this way. One thinking error was covered per week. After describing each of the thinking errors, participants were directed to biblical passages that both condemned such thinking and provided alternative ways of thinking. For example, Thinking Error No. 2 is Victimstance, which is defined as the tendency to see oneself as a victim of circumstances such as social condition, family history, past negative experiences, etc. It involves blaming others for one's actions instead of accepting responsibility for bad choices. For insight into this behavior, students are directed to look at the story of Adam and Eve's disobedience in eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and their subsequent expulsion from the Garden of Eden, as described in the book of Genesis.

They see that Eve, when confronted by God, blames the serpent who tempted her. Adam blames his wife for giving him the fruit and ultimately God, for giving him his wife. Participants are led to see that failure to admit crime and accept responsibility is a barrier to rehabilitation.

The offenders were encouraged to give examples from their own lives either conversations of others they had overheard or examples of their own thinking patterns. The goal was to help them develop the skill to recognize a thinking error in themselves, put on a brake and correct the thinking. One of the rules that was agreed upon was that participants would hold one another accountable and confront thinking errors that were detected during the group discussions. In order to encourage participation, the chaplain also agreed to be accountable in the group process.

In addition to the weekly class, each participant was provided a workbook that contained daily readings to reinforce class instruction. They were expected to read these and keep a journal of their thinking patterns for processing in weekly group sessions. Members were encouraged to ask for private counseling sessions to process and reinforce the learning.

Some of them did, but most did not. The chaplain requested sessions with those who demonstrated a high level of thinking errors in the group discussions.

After 10 weeks, when all 10 thinking errors had been covered, the class reviewed the list and did a small group application exercise. Participants were asked to identify examples of thinking errors in the characters of a selected biblical story and discuss alternative ways of handling the situation. In the final session, the chaplain gave them an opportunity to provide feedback about the experience, followed by a closing ceremony that included the presentation of certificates of completion.

The data related to the subjects' behavior in this study proved to be quite encouraging. Of those in the study (experimental group, n=10), there were no infractions reported. The control group (n=28) had a total of 17 infractions, for a mean infraction rate of 0.607 infractions per person versus 0 infractions per person in the experimental group. However, six of the 28 individuals in the control group were responsible for all the infractions. Calculating the mean infraction rate per person who committed at least one infraction gives a mean of 0.214. Statistical analysis revealed a statistically significant difference [t(27)=2.714, p>.01]. Although the sample size in this study is too small to make a case for validity, the results support a claim that members taking the class on Biblical Correctives to Thinking Errors did a better job of monitoring their thoughts and behaviors during the period of the study.

Participants were asked to identify examples of thinking errors in the
characters of a selected biblical story and discuss alternative ways
of handling the situation.

During the period of this study, another program was initiated at the facility that, while not being intentionally related, did provide interesting data concerning religious programming. The facility initiated a new concept called the Honor Dorm. Administrators decided to reward good behavior by establishing a housing unit that contained some positive perks and was open only to those meeting a certain standard. The Honor Dorm held 120 of the bestbehaved inmates. When this group was compared with the chapel attendance records, it was discovered that 81 of the 120 inmates selected on behavioral criteria were active in chapel programs. This represents 67.5 percent of the Honor Dorm population involved in religious programs. In the general prison population at this facility, only 37.5 percent is involved in religious programs. Since these statistics do not control for any other variables, one must be careful about making any claims. However, the numbers are suggestive of a possible relationship and might be fruitful to explore furtber.

Further Research

The most valued outcome of correctional programs is reduced recidivism rates. A follow up study should be conducted that traces the inmates involved in the Putnamville Correctional Facility study for a year after their release to see if the impact had more lasting results. Additional studies with more participants can help further determine the validity of the research. This study focused on the most receptive people, who in some cases were probably already lower risks for recidivism. A good place for additional research is with higher risk offenders using high scores on the Level of Service Inventory Revised as a screen for placement in the program.

Cognitive behavioral programs have been shown to be effective treatment modalities for reducing facility infractions and recidivism after incarceration. Faith based, cognitive behavioral programs show good promise as an additional treatment modality for correcting criminal thinking. Although the above studies represent only a modest beginning, they are an important step in the direction of providing empirically verifiable information on the efficacy of faith based programming as a form of rehabilitative treatment in the prison setting.


  1. Gendreau, P. and D.A. Andrews. 1990. Tertiary prevention: What the meta analyses of the offender treatment literature tell us about "what works." Canadian Journal of Criminology, 32:173 184. (To return to article click here.)
  2. McMinn, M. 1991. Cognitive therapy techniques. Dallas: Word Publishing. (To return to article click here.)

  3. Yochelson, S. and S.E. Samenow. 1977. The criminal personality: The change process. Livingston, N.J.: Jason Aronson. (To return to article click here.)
  4. Yochelson, S. and S.E. Samenow. 1977.(To return to article click here.)

  5. For more information, see Sharp, B.D. 2000. Criminal thinking: A treatment pro gram. Lanham, Md.: American Correctional Association. (To return to article click here.)

  6. Gendreau, P. 1996. The principles of effective intervention with offenders. In Choosing correctional options that work: Defining the demand and evaluating the supply, ed. A.T. Harland, 117 130. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage. (To return to article click here.)

  7. Andrews, D. and J. Bonta. 1995. LSTR: The level of service inventory revised, user's manual. North Tonawanda, N.Y.: MultiHealth Systems Inc. (To return to article click here.)

  8. O'Connor, T.P., T.L. Brooks and M.W. Sprauer. 1997. The impact of religious programs on inmate infractions at Lieber Prison in South Carolina. Silver Spring, Md.: Center for Social Research. (To return to article click here.)

  9. D.A. Andrews. 1989. Recidivism is predictable and can be influenced: Using risk assessments to reduce recidivism. Forum on Corrections Research, 1(2):11 18. (To return to article click here.)

The Rev. Stephen T Hall is director of Religious Services and Community Involvement for the Indiana Department of Correction and is a certified correctional chaplain with the American Correctional Chaplains Association.

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December 2003 Corrections Today