Converted convicts?

490px Raffael 087 Do British faith-based programs for prisoners help them walk the straight and narrow while in jail and cut recidivism rates when they get out?

That question is the topic of a detailed, sometimes probing, and rather diffuse article by Jamie Doward from Sunday's Guardian website.

With incarceration rates in the U.K. and the U.S. at record highs, this is a very hot topic. Unfortunately, the writer choses not to address it head-on, but walks around it.

Minor, grouchy caveat -until close to the end of this article, the phrase "faith-based" seems to be a euphemism for "Christian." It's only toward the end that the writer alludes to other religious groups that are operating or want to operate in prisons.

Doward begins his story with a lengthy narrative about Michael Emmett, a junior operative in the "family smuggling business."

Emmett began attending chapel "because it entitled him to a free phone call," according to Doward. Eventually, however, he not only asked the chaplain to introduce the Christian course Alpha into prison, but was also able to walk away from his drug habit.

For the past ten years Emmett has helped others "discover a relationship with God."

Doward's colorful lede is buried about a third of the way through the article.

There are thousands of others like Emmett who 'have found the Lord in prison' and made spectacular breaks with their criminal pasts, the sort of brutal splintering that secular groups working with reoffenders rarely achieve. For the unspoken truth is that, in an increasingly irreligious society, Jesus continues to walk the wings of Britain's prisons, offering salvation to those who have no other chance of saving themselves. And if the government gets its way, Jesus is going to assume a greater role in the criminal justice system.

What the Dickens (don't you hear echoes of Charles himself?) is going on here?

At this point, I have all sorts of questions. What does Doward mean by "irreligious society"? Although most Christians don't attend church, Britain's public square teems with issues of faith.

It is a wee bit hyperbolic to assert that "Jesus continues to walk the wings of Britain's prisons."

And then there is Doward's claim that "if the government gets its way, Jesus is going to assume a greater role in the criminal justice system." The audacity of that statement doesn't seem to be borne out by the rather meek next paragraph.

A new consultation document, 'Working with the Third Sector to Reduce Reoffending', produced by the Ministry of Justice, outlines ways of expanding the work of faith groups with offenders. 'Faith organisations can help build trust and acceptance and support effective reintegration,' the ministry claims.

While the government is selling these programs for economic reasons, writes Doward, the "biggest selling point is the impressive claims they make for curbing reoffending."

Ah -- here we get to the nub of the matter. But although Doward helpfully mentions a number of Christian programs that are operating in British prisons, and uses words like "startling" to describe their claims of helping those in jail, he doesn't dig deeply enough into these claims (and the counterarguments by those opposed) to give us a sense of how effective these programs are.

That may be because verifying such statistics really isn't all that easy. Having someone address that issue would really have strengthened this article.

Kudos to Doward for this provocative nugget -- "more than 50,000 prisoners have attended Alpha, the Christian course that operates in 80 percent of the UK's jails." That's a remarkable figure, which begs for unpacking. Who is running these programs? Are they staffed by volunteers? Pastors?

Soon afterwards, Doward alludes to private prison programs in the United States with this slightly cynical sentence (note the use of the "f" word as a broad, vague and possibly inaccurate descriptor).

Given current trends, some believe that the UK will follow the lead of the United States, where fundamental Christian groups pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to open centres in privately run prisons where they can promote their beliefs.

The next paragraphs, however, nicely limn the lively debate around these Christian groups, and opposition to their influence in the U.K.

Noting that the Prison Society is now "promoting a more multi-faith agenda," due to the increase in a diverse prison population, and that several Christian groups have stopped working in prisons, "complaining that a culture of political correctness is stifling their work," Doward concludes :

But countless other Christian groups are ready to fill the gap. Given that the incarcerated population is at record levels and rehabilitation and education courses are being pared back, the church's role in Britain's jails can only become more powerful. No one else wants the job.

This vaguely menacing paragraph about the role of Christianity in the prisons still leaves the reader wondering -- the programs may be "powerful", but do they work?

At the end of the article, I'm still clueless.

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