Just three months after Oklahoma voters approved criminal justice reforms through ballot initiative, state legislators have filed bills to roll back the changes. Despite Oklahoma’s prisons operating at 109 percent capacity, these bills would revoke public funds from treatment programs aimed at reducing recidivism. If passed, these bills would directly counter the public’s wishes and exacerbate already dangerous prison crowding.
But there is a compromise available to preserve programs while limiting public expense. Oklahoma could learn from its neighbors and allow faith-based, privately funded programs to offer education to inmates, training them for roles of service to one another. Louisiana has operated such a program for over two decades, and Texas has followed suit since 2011. In both states, inmates who volunteer to participate receive a fully accredited, four-year bachelor’s degree at no cost to themselves or to taxpayers.
In return, graduates commit to apply their education to serve their peers. Designated “Field Ministers,” they work as caretakers in a variety of roles including grief counselors, academic tutors, mentors for new arrivals to their units, and instructors for courses on substance abuse, anger management, and victim awareness. In other words, these college-educated men replicate as volunteers many of the rehabilitative services that the Oklahoma Legislature seems so loath to finance.
An intensive four-year study by a team from Baylor University found overwhelmingly positive outcomes at Louisiana’s Angola Prison. Program participants had the prison’s highest levels of mental and emotional wellbeing and stability, positive attitudes toward staff, and sense of meaning and purpose in life, even while incarcerated. Perhaps even more striking, other inmates who participated in religious congregations with these Field Ministers but without the same educational advantages outperformed the rest of the general population on these same measures. Preliminary findings from the newer program in Texas have been similarly encouraging.
Faith-based education programs also make fiscal sense. Angola’s program launched as a response to austerity aggravated by Congress’s revocation of Pell Grant eligibility for prisoners. Kris Steele, former Republican speaker of the Oklahoma House and now executive director of The Education and Employment Ministry, a justice reform group, stresses the importance of “positive return on investment.” Angola’s Inmate Ministers show the financial return that allowing faith-based service invites. The prison employs 30 Inmate Ministers as “re-entry mentors” for men serving shorter sentences; ministers provide mentees with social and vocational support as they prepare for parole. Wages for these 30 ministers cost the state $34,000 annually, compared to an estimated $1.45 million to replace them with comparably qualified civil service employees. This single program saves Louisiana taxpayers over $1.41 million in direct costs, not to mention the savings and tax revenue generated by parolees who succeed thanks to the influence of a mentor.
Rehabilitative services are the right choice for prisoners and the public, but Oklahoma legislators seem unwilling to foot the bill. Why not then allow faith-based schools to offer voluntary education to prisoners and train them for caretaking service?
Joshua Hays (email@example.com) is a research associate with Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion and co-author of The Angola Prison Seminary: Effects of Faith-Based Ministry on Identity Transformation, Desistance, and Rehabilitation (Routledge, 2016).