Humans, Not Convicts: Dismantling Mass Incarceration through Moral Rehabilitation?

We are excited to continue our Religion and Mass Incarceration: New Scholarly Directions series with a blog post from Stephanie Gaskill on her research on “moral rehabilitation,” a faith-based reform program at Angola Prison in Louisiana.

Humans, Not Convicts:
Dismantling Mass Incarceration through Moral Rehabilitation?

by Stephanie Gaskill

Jesus on the Cross
Bobby Wallace, pictured in center, plays the role of Jesus in The Life of Jesus Christ, a passion play performed by prisoners from Angola Prison and the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women in Angola’s famous rodeo arena.

Two basic questions drive my research on religion and mass incarceration. First, how did the U.S. come to incarcerate so many of its Black and Latino citizens? Second, how can the system of mass incarceration be dismantled? I focus in particular on the idea that the fate of the prison system hinges on whether or not prisoners are perceived to be human beings. Prison populations rose dramatically in the 1970s in part because prisoners at this time were portrayed as less than human. Popular media drew implicit connections between people of color and criminality, capitalizing on long-standing racial prejudices to make the mass imprisonment of black and brown people publicly acceptable. It would seem to follow, then, that refuting such depictions could help to dismantle mass incarceration: prove that prisoners are human beings, and the public will no longer consent to their imprisonment.

But how exactly do prisoners and their advocates prove that prisoners are humans? Who determines what acceptable proof of humanity is? I investigate the role of religion in this strategy through one case study: moral rehabilitation at Angola Prison in Louisiana. Angola is known for its origins as a slave plantation and its reputation as “the bloodiest prison in America.” Because of Louisiana’s draconian sentencing laws, Angola is home to the largest population of lifers in the world. But moral rehabilitation, a program of evangelical faith-based prisoner reform initiated by Angola’s long-time warden, Burl Cain, presents the supposedly “softer side” of this notorious prison. Moral rehabilitation is supposed to reduce violence and increase productivity inside the prison. But the successes of moral rehabilitation are also meant to convince members of the public that prisoners are human beings capable of change and worthy of a second chance. The fact that prisoners participate in the religious education and programming offered through moral rehabilitation is supposed to be particularly compelling proof of their humanity.

The fact that moral rehabilitation asserts prisoners’ humanity through their religious activity is especially fraught for African Americans incarcerated at Angola. African Americans’ humanity has been challenged on a variety of fronts, from slavery to the present, and attempts to prove black humanity have often been met with skepticism and scorn. Furthermore, religion has been both a boon and a burden for African Americans, used to render blacks more sympathetic to whites, but also to cast African Americans as excessively emotional and incapable of functioning in “civilized” society.

In this context, I am investigating how different groups associated with Angola implement or strategically navigate moral rehabilitation to prove that prisoners are humans. I examine the perspectives of the warden, prison ministry volunteers, members of the public, and prisoners themselves, focusing on the roles of race and religion in each group’s efforts to promote prisoners’ humanity and criminal justice reform. I conclude my project with a chapter on men released from Angola after they were exonerated of the crimes for which they were convicted. Exonerees’ struggles to rebuild their lives after incarceration highlight the question of African American humanity in light of the monetary and moral debt owed to them. If proving prisoners’ morality is the means to end mass incarceration, what moral reckoning will occur once the system is dismantled?

Ultimately, I hope my research can shed light on the benefits and pitfalls of humanization of prisoners as a strategy for ending mass incarceration, as well as the complicated role religion and race play in this strategy.

Stephanie Gaskill is a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina’s Religious Studies Department.

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