European Research on Religious Diversity as a Factor in the Rehabilitation of Prisoners: An Introduction

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015
Irene Becci and Olivier Roy (eds.)Religious Diversity in European Prisons10.1007/978-3-319-16778-7_1

1. European Research on Religious Diversity as a Factor in the Rehabilitation of Prisoners: An Introduction

Irene Becci 

Institute for the Social Sciences of Contemporary Religions, University of Lausanne, Lausanne, Switzerland



Irene Becci

Debates about the aims and social functions of the current prison systems in Europe emerge cyclically in political arenas and the mass media. The range of opinions is extremely wide, from the criticism of prisons as inhuman and even engendering criminality and the request to abolish them, to the opposite: the claim that prisons are velveted shelters for criminals and need to be harshened. Social scientific research confirms that prisons and their aims of containment and rehabilitation are highly contested fields. Recently, the contestations have become increasingly related to religion and religious diversity. In the European context, prisons have historically implemented the modern binary conception of secularism and religion, and apart from their specific functions—to re-educate, protect, rehabilitate, punish, etc.—they play a central role in the secularization process of society. Nowadays, emerging religious and spiritual practices and discourses are transforming the secular conceptions of punishment, imprisonment and rehabilitation. In the opposite direction, secular punitive or integrative practices in institutions are transforming religious and spiritual ways of dealing with reparation and punishment.

The religious change that the correctional realms of most European countries have witnessed in recent years has concerned first of all the inmates. Compared to a couple of decades ago, their religious affiliations, discourses and practices have greatly diversified. Moreover, there has been a change in the wider discourse connecting issues of religion to prison. From the Anglo-Saxon world echoes the idea of letting religion, in particular religious communities, play an active role in the rehabilitation of criminals. As a consequence, religion—sometimes under the heading of spirituality—seems to find a new setting in the world of prisons.

This book offers insights into how these processes are developing in the prisons of Belgium, England and Wales, France, Germany , Italy , Spain, Switzerland and the Netherlands. Readers may wonder about the aim of bringing together all these case studies that follow such different historical paths with respect to religion. Here, they are indeed explored both through contrasts and continuities according to theoretical and analytical keys that are sketched out in this introduction. It is subdivided into three sections. The first section draws a picture of the work done by a European research network in this field and of the main thematic questions approached. The second section starts with some methodological reflections, and proposes a series of variables according to which an analytical framework can be created to organize comparison of national cases. Finally, in the last section, I explain the logic used to structure the book and give some hints for readers to find their way through the book according to their interests.

1.1 Results from National Cases

Recently, a series of publications have highlighted the changing religious profile of prisoners in Europe and the structural adjustments some prisons have made to better meet the new needs. One of the first studies on the question of religious diversity in prisons was run by James Beckford and Sophie Gilliat (1998) in the 1990s in England and Wales. There, prison chaplaincy had historically been in the hands of the Anglican Church. Only in the nineteenth century were the Roman Catholics included and these two churches remained the only ones involved in prison work until the publication of Gilliat and Beckford’s study. The clear results of the study convinced the authorities to open chaplaincy first to Muslims and then to other faiths1. This system was in line with the larger multicultural English political model that institutionalizes differences (Todd 2012). The two English scholars started with the statement as follows (pp. 8–9):

Religions claim to represent a level of reality which is ultimately true and irreducible to any other meaning system. Consequently, religious believers who perceive that their particular religion does not receive the same degree of respect as do others may feel seriously disadvantaged and offended. No compromise is possible when it comes to matters of absolute significance for the believers. They find it unacceptable to have to put up with what appears to be at best relative or conditional respect for their religion. Some prisoners actually become more serious about their religion precisely because they object to perceived slights against its value or integrity.

In the studies made in the prisons of England and Wales, a multi-faith spiritual care in prisons was considered a necessary and consubstantial element of the treatment offered during imprisonment. The chaplaincy model, which was traditionally led by the established churches, changed. The newly included faith communities were, hence, not the only ones to undergo adaptation. The equal treatment of all religious needs and the equal offer of spiritual care in prison were to be seen as both, the answer to increasingly diverse religious needs and the prevention of these needs becoming too “serious”. Such a double aim indicates a tension—between recognition and control. This tension has inhabited the social scientific studies on religion in prison since then2. The issue at stake was hence not only equality—as the title of Gilliat and Beckford’s book announced: “Religion in Prison. Equal Rites in a Multi-Faith Society”—but also the use of religion preventively against undesired consequences . What these consequences precisely entailed would become clearer only in the decades that followed, and more precisely after the terrorist attacks in New York in 2001. The English inquiry indeed gave important insights, in particular, into the practices and discourses of the chaplains and the staffs (Beckford and Gilliat 1998). The perspective of inmates was, however, not thoroughly studied.

Scholars in other European contexts took up the challenge and stepwise formed a network which was to mutually complete and strengthen knowledge on this topic.3 Prisons were re-considered as laboratories allowing observation of the adaptation processes by the state to religious diversity and the relocation processes of religion—with its correlate spirituality—within the discursive framework of plurality, diversity and its transgression of institutional boundaries—be they religious or secular. Security arguments were well present in the negotiations for the reshaping of a multi-faith chaplaincy . As the different religious and secular actors do not have an unanimous view of the relationship between security and religion, the negotiations were tricky. The total institution “prison” is a field of power relations in which actors, and even more religious actors, move carefully—partly according to their degree of official recognition, and to their meaning for the various individuals, etc. Here, the contested nature of the concept of religious diversity pops up strikingly. In the English case, where religious diversity tends to be problematized in reference to the community, the tension lies between the positive benefits of community and the negative costs of increased segregation and rivalry between “communities”.4 Through community, religion also finds its way into a newly defined rehabilitation strategy. Community, with its mostly voluntary involvement, offers offenders—at a low cost—a link to the outside world, and prolongs the support beyond the time of imprisonment. The new question today is, however, not simply whether to integrate religion into rehabilitation , but whether to integrate religious diversity.

A pluralist attitude with regard to prison chaplaincy has also been adopted by the governments in Belgium and the Netherlands. Farid El Asri’s article on the Belgian case offers a precise illustration of the difficulties in the political process that led to a pluralist spiritual care model. This change not only implied an adaptation of the legal framework but also a strong reorganization of the Muslim community at the national level in Belgium. Thrown from the juridical to the political levels, the processes of recognition and institutionalization are very slow and are constantly put under the pressure of pragmatic situations of urgency. In the Netherlands, as the chapter written by Mohamed Ajouaou and Ton Bernts indicates, the reshaping of the prison chaplaincy as multi-faith has had deep implications both for the minority faith communities and for the perception of religion as an individual preference. The government has opened up chaplaincy under clear secular expectations: that of gender equality, that of respect for individual rights and that of the necessity of a professionalization of spiritual care. In both cases, contrary to England and Wales, the diversification of prison chaplaincy has also implied the inclusion of secular actors claiming to pertain to the same existential field as religion, such as humanists and free-thinkers. The studies of these cases demonstrate that the integration of religious actors who are socially less recognized into prison chaplaincy provokes changes at multiple levels, having repercussions even in the religious communities which through prison chaplaincy find a way to recognition .

The contributions to this book also illustrate national cases in Europe where no such legal pluralization of spiritual care occurs. This is the case of France , Germany , Italy and Switzerland. In these countries, the presence of ministers from newly introduced religions is not completely absent, but determined by local dynamics, and therefore, occasional and contingent. The French case, presented by Corinne Rostaing, Céline Béraud and Claire de Galembert, offers a particularly interesting comparison. France is a well-known unique model of secularism offering religion a rather marginal place within prisons and weak resources to chaplaincy . Such an appreciation is mirrored in perceptions by security agents of religion as being useless in terms of prisoner rehabilitation . Nonetheless, approaching the question empirically and including the perspective of inmates highlight that even under these circumstances religion is mobilized as an individual or collective resource and becomes either a problem or a solution in the prison world. The way inmates and partly religious actors relate to religion in prison is not necessarily consonant with the normative model imagined for religion by the institution. This does not mean that it does not contribute to some sort of rehabilitation for offenders—in fact the contrary is true.

In Germany, Italy and Switzerland, the governments have kept privileged relations with the traditional main Christian churches, which have a direct impact on the organization of prison chaplaincy. Minority faiths are not directly integrated; their ministers need to be placed at a particular, different, level of intervention, with all the consequences in terms of lack of visibility, professionalism etc. that this has. Here, at the legal level there is little change. The changes in terms of religion are located at another level. In Italy, as Fabretti and Rhazzali show, the resources for religion are greater than in France in financial, legal and symbolic terms, but the model of chaplaincy remains in the hands of the Roman Catholic Church. Solutions to the new needs expressed by a religiously more diverse prison population are found locally and pragmatically. In their daily work, Catholic chaplains do in fact cohabit and work together with ministers of other faiths. Here, awareness of the new “post-secular” dimension of contemporary society needs to go through the recognition of minority religions. Such recognition is still difficult under present conditions. The chapter by Rhazzali on the organization of Muslim religious care for prisoners nicely illustrates these difficulties.

Some researchers have shifted their attention to apprehending the impact of the new religious diversity on the emerging notion of spirituality. This notion has stepped out of the theological realm and entered popular culture. Hubert Knoblauch (2009) has qualified this process as the popularization of religion. He points to the fact that some “New Age” practices, such as the use of stones or crystals, and concentration techniques focusing on “energies”, etc., are so widely known nowadays that they have become an obvious part of popular culture. Bradford Verter (2003

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