Languages of Change in Prison: Thoughts About the Homologies Between Secular Rehabilitation, Religious Conversion, and Spiritual Quest

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015
Irene Becci and Olivier Roy (eds.)Religious Diversity in European Prisons10.1007/978-3-319-16778-7_10

10. Languages of Change in Prison: Thoughts About the Homologies Between Secular Rehabilitation, Religious Conversion, and Spiritual Quest

Irene Becci 

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



Irene Becci

RehabilitationLanguages of changeReligious conversionSwitzerlandGermanyItalyDiscourse analysisPrison

10.1 Introduction1

In principle, in Western countries, rehabilitation is one of the core objectives of the criminal code since approximately the end of the World War II (WW II) .2 In this chapter, the focus will go on three European contexts, where I have been conducting fieldwork in prisons and with ex-prisoners: central Italy, Eastern Germany, and (Western) Switzerland .3

In Italy, the basic pillars of a rehabilitation process, that is education, work, religion, cultural activities, leisure and sports activities, and relationships with the family and with the external world, are defined in article 15 of the penal law of 1975 (Bagnoli 2008, p. 18). In Switzerland, rehabilitation is affirmed in particular in article 37 on community service and in article 75 of the criminal code which states that the “execution of sentences must encourage an improvement in the social behavior of the prison inmates, and in particular their ability to live their lives without offending again. The conditions under which sentences are executed must correspond as far as possible with those of normal life, guarantee the supervision of the prison inmates, counteract the harmful consequences of the deprivation of liberty and take appropriate account of the need to protect the general public, the institution’s staff and other inmates.”4 Moreover, the criminal code insists that the “prison inmate must actively cooperate in resocialization efforts and the preparations for release.”5 The paragraphs referring to the management plan of prison sentences in the German Prison Act6 are very similar. The third section on the prison regime states that:

(1) Life in penal institutions should be approximated as far as possible to general living conditions.

(2) Any detrimental effects of imprisonment shall be counteracted.

(3) Imprisonment shall be so designed as to help the prisoner to reintegrate himself into civil life.

According to these regulations, the institution is supposed to offer the best conditions to “normalize” life in prison, that is, to shape daily life inside prison so that it resembles normal life as much as possible.7 For decades, both the United Nations and the European Council have been affirming the need to individualize the treatment offered in prison. The plan managing the sentence is formulated as an individualized treatment, adapting a combination of given elements (such as work, education, etc.) to a person’s intellectual and social capabilities. This objective is, however, subject to the principle of order (within a correction facility) and security (of the people for whom the offender could represent harm). The excessively high proportion of security agents vis-à-vis rehabilitation staff is a sign of one aim yielding to the other (Bagnoli 2008, p. 32). In the Italian case, studies reveal that more than 75 % of the prison population is actually considered to be impossible to rehabilitate (Bagnoli 2008, p. 31). Most of these are drug-addicted inmates, non-nationals, inmates in maximum security prisons or very young persons. Such a subjugation of rehabilitation to order and security creates a tense relation. Through a strictly scheduled daily institutional organization, which is one of the characteristics Erving Goffman (1961) sketched out in his study of total institutions, the two aims are supposed to be balanced.

In the studied countries, the prison treatment hence contains, besides disciplinary practices around one’s body (the practices of eating, sleeping, moving or washing are determined by the institutions), a certain amount of work, education, sometimes therapy. The exact temporal and spatial organization of these activities varies according to whether the prisoner is at the beginning, the middle, or the end of his sentence. Formally, the structure of imprisonment is a system of stages, which is oriented towards less and less imprisonment. In a first stage, which ideally lasts only a few weeks, the prisoner is kept in single detention, no activities apart from religious services are offered to him and he or she is usually alone, although numerous prisons have a structural problem of overpopulation, and prisoners are in overcrowded cells. At a second stage, the prisoner spends less time in the cell, since work, treatment, vocational training, and leisure activities take most of his day. At the earliest after the first half of the sentence, if the prisoner is not considered to represent any risks of escaping or any threats to security and order, he can start a third stage in which he may work and live in a slightly freer way, having more responsibilities, such as preparing his own meals. Architecturally, the section where his cell is located is a separated unit of the prison. In the last part of the sentence, the inmate who receives a positive evaluation can be released on probation, possibly under legal custody.

Across these stages, the prison is supposed to encourage the positive value of work and of repentance, and to support inmates in reconstructing their relations with their relatives or support groups. Prisoners should not only receive psychological, medical, and social but also spiritual support, when passing through these stages. The way these different types of support interact varies.

In this chapter, I shall locate these principles of rehabilitation into the larger frame of the idea of change in prison. I shall first clarify some historical, theoretical, and methodological reflections on change in prison before presenting some of the results emerging from my empirical studies. I propose an analysis of the narratives used by prisoners about the change experienced in prison. Among prisoners’ narratives of personal change, I distinguish between ways of framing the change as secular, religious, or spiritual. I shall also address the question of what the results of my analysis tell us about the larger context in which these languages emerge. Lastly, some elaborations shall connect these findings to the current context of the debates on the social function of prisons.

10.2 Change in Prison: Historical and Theoretical Considerations

At the center of the current organization of the sentence lies the idea of change, a belief that through the prison experience a person changes for the better. A quick look at the history of this idea in prison brings us back to the eighteenth century, at the very beginning of the notion that through the treatment offered in prison, inmates can improve themselves. This long history contains both secular and religious key arguments and actors.

Utilitarian and enlightened secular thinkers, such as Cesare Beccaria or Jeremy Bentham, and philanthropic and religious actors, such as John Howard or Elizabeth Fry (see Ignatieff 1978 and Santoro 1997), have promoted this notion from two different angles, where finally very similar ideas crystallized pragmatically in the penitentiary . The creation of a modern prison system, which was no longer dedicated to being a place where people are simply kept before being punished, but rather an organized space where punishment is measured with the unit of time in order to allow people to change through penitence, has been motivated historically by the belief that when put under certain conditions, criminals can be reformed and go back to society as different, improved persons who will not cause harm any longer. The Philadelphia penitentiary, founded by committed Quakers on a rigorous religious practice, is the historical example of such a model in the USA. Other examples are Pentonville prison near London or Regina Coeli in Rome. While at the time, religious practice was directly linked to the importance of discipline, in the last century, and more importantly with the introduction of religious freedom and freedom of conscience as a human right, religion has become a protected, private, and autonomous sphere. Prisoners’ religious practices are today no longer subject to any disciplinary constraints. There is no obligation about religion, as the secular sentence is separated from any religious implication. In the secular total institution, as Goffman (1961, p. 24) pointed out, inmates undergo a “moral career” across roughly three phases. First, they pass through a “prepatient phase” when they become aware of what imprisonment all implies. As a matter of fact, when a sentence is pronounced, it mainly refers to its length in time while the experience of “abasements, degradations, humiliations, and profanations of self” is passed under silence. Goffman’s analysis has also shown that the inmate’s “self is systematically, if often unintentionally, mortified” (1961, p. 24). In the successive phase, the inpatient phase, the inmate is humiliated before being released in the last phase.

Rehabilitation has nowadays stopped to go hand in hand with change through religious practice and insight. Ironically, today, when it comes to minority religions, we often observe the opposite: the religious radicalization of inmates is commonly considered as dangerous—in the sense of disfunctional to the main social institutions. A widely known case is Malcolm X’s conversion to the Nation of Islam (Marable 2011, p. 90). In more recent years, in the three studied countries, media attention has easily shifted to the high numbers of prisoners of Muslim origin and some observed processes of religious radicalization in prison. This is however not true for the traditional religious groups which were present since the birth of the penitentiary system. If the topic of change is inherently linked to the prison itself and a structural and representational pattern of it, the type of change still needs to be qualified in the concrete situation. Relying on Pierre Bourdieu’s (1979 and 1997) framework, I shall draw the contours of the current structural context for the emergence of different ways to narrate the experienced change in prison. A recent critical elaboration of this framework by Bernhard Lahire (2011) points to the importance of considering a person’s performance as the result of a particular mobilization of a variety of cultural resources according to concrete situations rather than as the repetition of a predetermined embodied socialization. In this revised framework, the language is neither the result simply of one person’s dispositions nor of the person’s full adaptation to the experienced context of a total institution, rather it is a combination of both giving place to a plurality of combinations. The coexistence of different frames of narratives of change has to be referred both to the prison’s institutional context (as the concept of the total institution suggests) and the person’s social and cultural profile, hence giving more space to the actor’s agency. The analysis therefore needs to take into consideration both the precise context of action and the cultural dispositions of a person.

In my empirical studies carried out in various prisons in Germany, Italy, and Switzerland since 20038, I found a whole set of narratives alluding to change, positive as well as negative. Change can indeed also be a negative experience, when one’s human condition is deteriorated through imprisonment. In what follows, I shall first make some conceptual clarifications about my empirical work, before presenting three different languages used to narrate a change experienced in prison: a secular, religious, or spiritual language. Different languages can coexist in the same institution and even be used by the same person; they refer, however, to different repertoires.

10.3 The Empirical Approach to Self-Narratives of Change in Prison

As a large body of studies has shown, self-narratives can be analyzed as “observable events” (Maruna et al. 2006, pp. 162–163). At the latest since the linguistic turn, sociologists know that “narratives tell researchers more about the individual’s present construction of personal identity than they tell us about the past” (Snow and Machalek 1983). The situations in which the inmates, I shall quote, constructed their narratives was that of a face-to-face interview taking place mostly in a meeting room in prison. Instead of simply analyzing the content of the utterances on oneself, it is essential to reflect about their form, question the interruptions, and interpret the hesitations (Fournier 2009). Interviews with prison inmates request some additional epistemological considerations. When doing fieldwork in prisons, a researcher meets difficult conditions, not only materially but also relationally. As everyone, the researcher approaches the inmates with a series of preconceptions in mind, which are difficult to overcome. Despite the reflexive attitude I continuously used in my work to control my possible biases of interpretation, I only came to realize the strength of the preconceptions I held on this topic for the past 10 or so years I have been working on this topic when I recently talked to a prisoner. I was indeed struck by the bad smell present in prison each time I entered one: it was a mixture of body sweat and iron, cleaning chemicals, and dirty clothes. Not hearing, however, anybody mentioning such an observation, I quite obviously thought that inmates no longer noticed that smell.9 But in the summer of 2014, in a city in northern Italy, I spoke to an inmate who was spending a day outside the prison in preparation of his release. At some point, he started to talk about his disgust at the idea that he would be going back to prison at the end of the day and smell the prison.

– You see, for me, prison has a particular smell.

I—Hasn’t it? It really has [surprised].

– Freedom smells differently … It has a particular smell.

I—My God, yes!

Do you understand?… Inside there … inside … the air is really stale.

I—Can you still smell it though?

– Hem?

I—I thought if one always lives in there/

– No no no! I have been smelling it all my life

I—… have you?

– Yes, I have been smelling it all my life.

This interaction shows the asymmetrical character of the relationship between the researcher and the inmate. While in everyday interactions, one usually supposes that he shares the same type of sensory experience as his interlocutor, this cannot be taken for granted in prison. Such an asymmetry throws a shadow on certain parts of the narrative and probably directs too much light on others. Since I started my research with the intention to know more about the relation to religion10 in prison, for a long time I actually passed over all other narratives of change. Although I asked rather open questions such as “could you tell me what your every day looks like in prison?”, and I rarely mentioned notions such as religion directly; the whole interview situation was framed in terms of me doing research on the relation to religion in prison. In this analysis, my aim shall be to draw a picture of some of the major types of languages used to tell narratives of change—and the religious language is probably the most studied one. The purpose of this contribution is therefore to take a step back and theorize the types of narratives of change present in the prison context. Since I am operating a secondary analysis of my data, the results presented here have an exploratory status. This exploration has brought me to identify that most frequently the narratives of change in prison refer to a secular frame. A reference to religious change is less frequent, but contains a surprising coherence. I also identified a third type of narrative frame, which I will call spiritual. In order to illustrate the identified categories, I will offer quotes from the interviews.

10.4 Variations in Narrating Change in Prison: Current Languages

10.4.1 Change in a Secular Language

In their structural and architectural organization, the prisons in Eastern Germany and Switzerland were strongly secularized. A highly educated11 Swiss inmate in his sixties expressed this in a conversation about religious life in the prison he was kept in:

There is nothing here, it’s really hyper secular, you see, it is absolutely a-religious, yes here it is a-religious. There are the chaplains, they pass by, they offer their service, yes … because that [such an assistance] could not be prohibited, that would go against the laws wouldn’t it? But they don’t encourage you, no inhibition, no pushing, there is nothing.

The different prison organizations provided a whole vocabulary, in their treatments, to express the change and the improvement of an inmate’s behavior. The most plausible way for inmates—if their psychological and physical conditions were not hindering them—was to adopt the institution’s language. One frequently observed way to do so was to talk about order. Indeed, when I asked the inmates how they would describe the change prison caused for them, some answered they now had “an ordered life.” The two principles of order and rehabilitation were overlapping in these narratives. When interviewing inmates serving long-term sentences, I found that many referred to a positive change that imprisonment brought into their life. For a Swiss inmate,12 the fact of being locked up, in itself, is experienced as a test, even as a chance to stay away from his criminal life:

Well, for me prison is the material expression, reminding me every day, that I am going through a test. That’s why for me, as I said, it’s a chance, it puts me back on track. And it allowed me to work on myself, the prison, the fact of being imprisoned, I would never have made it if I had not been locked up.

The prison experience is not one single block, it is itself subdivided into several blocks of time to which different changes can correspond, as the following quote by a German inmate converted to Buddhism illustrates:

I—Does that mean that the whole, at all, the interest in religion and all the thoughts, did they all come up in prison?

– It all came up only in prison, and, now, actually during the last years, I mean not in the first 10 years not really, that I got interested in Buddhism, so extremely in religion. Since I am interested in Buddhism I also started to learn about Christianity …

The interpretations of one’s change are constantly under self-scrutiny, and the boundaries negotiated. For Carlos, a Brazilian Catholic inmate interviewed in a Swiss prison, and afflicted by multiple addictions, the treatment they had followed, in particular, therapies or sport, had a beneficial impact on him. This inmate in his late thirties, father of three, and convicted to a 10 years sentence, found a large repertoire in prison in order to change.

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