Ellis shows that faith affects treatment of, opportunities for incarcerated women
More than a year of research and 500 hours of interviews went into “In This Place Called Prison” (University of California Press, 2023), a new book by Assistant Professor Rachel Ellis of the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice. But now that the work is complete, Ellis is still connected with the women she’s met along the way, those still in prison and those who have been released. These women’s stories and experiences are important, and Ellis is one of few researchers who share them with the world.
The book is a rare in-depth study of religious life in women’s prisons. For the first time, Ellis is showing what religion looks like on the ground, day-to-day in a women’s prison. She talked with incarcerated women, chaplains, volunteers, wardens, corrections officers and other members of a prison community on the East Coast to gain unique insights.
Most previous studies of religious life behind bars are of men in prison, and particularly focus on whether religious affiliation correlates to pro-social behavior and fewer rule infractions while in prison; on the whole, it does. Some criminologists have also explored whether religious affiliation correlates to better outcomes once people are released, which is also generally true.
“At first glance, criminologists and prison scholars might view religious life as a ‘side topic’ or a peripheral angel to consider,” Ellis said. “I want people to know that for many women, religious practice in prison is the main event. It has an impact on daily life, even for women who do not practice religion.”
While Ellis’s book is breaking new ground, religious themes in a secular, state-run institution seem almost intuitive.
“When we think of ‘paying a debt to society,’ when we think about conviction, wrongdoing, penitence, redemption—these are all religious terms,” Ellis said.
A key finding in Ellis’s work is that women in prison who are members of faith communities are reframing what it means to be imprisoned, and are challenging societal messages of what punishment means.
“There is a stark contrast between the retribution of the prison system versus the redemption offered by religion,” Ellis said.
In their minds and hearts, and in their faith communities, religious women in prison are also challenging who gets to decide about punishment and forgiveness, regardless of the state powers that are dictating the terms of their sentences.
“Women are told by the prison system, ‘you deserve punishment, you’re serving time for your crimes,’” Ellis said. “But what they are hearing from religious teachings is different. The prison chaplain said to me, ‘I look and see a woman who God loves. I don’t see a criminal.’ I observed a Protestant volunteer preach during his Sunday sermon in the prison, ‘God does not care what you did. If you asked for forgiveness, He cast it into the sea of forgetfulness.’”
Prison saved some women from further mistakes and dangers in their lives, interviewees said. Ellis noted that some common themes were the ways religion helped women survive prison and navigate prison rules. She recalled one woman saying that incarceration saved her from the dangerous path her life was taking: “I realized He brought me here to get my attention.”
The majority of women in the prison Ellis visited do identify as members of a religious faith community, with most of those believers (63%) identifying as Protestant Christian. Other members identify as Catholic (7%), Sunni Muslim (5%), Lutheran (4.5%), Wiccan (3.5%) and Jewish (1.5%), with members of different faith traditions making up the remaining religious population. Those who identified as a member of a faith group made up the majority of the overall prison population.
Ellis interviewed Protestant, Catholic, Muslim and Jewish women, as well as those who identify as atheist or agnostic. For the most part, interviewees reported that their beliefs and their ability to congregate to practice their religion had a positive impact on their experience in prison.
“Worship services are the only place where incarcerated women are allowed to hug or embrace each other. There is a real feeling of community and support that comes from participating in religious programs,” Ellis said.
On a more complex note, one of Ellis’s critical findings is that religious affiliation—or lack thereof—creates a dynamic of “haves” and “have nots” in the prison community.
Legally, incarcerated people must have access to one worship service and one scripture-based service a week. They also have the right to accommodations for special religious requirements, such as a Kosher diet for Jewish people, and special meal times for Muslim people who are observing Ramadan.
But beyond those requirements, there are few limits to extra opportunities and gifts provided by volunteers and charitable organizations. To an overwhelming extent, Protestant Christians benefit from these gifts of time and goods, while people of different faiths—or those who do not identify with a religious tradition—are excluded.
“If a Protestant church member comes in to offer a Christian movie screening, only Protestant women may participate,” Ellis explained. “Or, they may receive a notebook or sugar cookies as part of their participation in Bible study. That creates a dynamic where some women are getting more, just because of what religious affiliation box they ticked when they entered prison.”
Volunteers are able to give gifts and to create events for all people in prison if they wish, Ellis said, noting that all women in prison receive a “Christmas gift bag” each December, filled with items donated by local churches, even those who are not Christian or who are agnostic or atheist. But by and large, organizations and volunteers are most often providing opportunities for people who identify with their own chosen religion.
Another stark disparity in treatment that Ellis noted among women of faith versus women who do not identify as members of a religious group was in how closely small groups were monitored.
“There aren’t many opportunities for women in prison to congregate in small groups, but when a group is meeting for a religious purpose, the officers said they felt they didn’t have to watch them as closely. There was more trust given to religious groups,” Ellis said. “The ‘gaze’ of the officers wasn’t always as heavy on religious women.”
The religious affiliation incarcerated women choose can have tangible consequences, even financial ones, Ellis said.
“If a woman is Jewish and chooses to adopt a Kosher diet, if she is caught eating non-Kosher foods, she is immediately barred from the Kosher meals in the future, and she may be required to pay back the cost of her previous Kosher meals,” Ellis said. “This can be devastating on prison wages.”
Similarly, if a woman who observes Ramadan and takes meals at special times is seen in the cafeteria during regular meal times, she is no longer given the accommodation.
“On the outside, people are flexible with their religious practices, or try new things, or adjust their observances to fit their lifestyle,” Ellis said. “Women in prison are held to incredibly high standards, or their religious accommodations can be taken away from them.”
In many religious traditions—and even in secular life on the outside—acknowledging one’s errors and asking for forgiveness is important for growth and enlightenment. On the inside, coming clean can have dire consequences.
One of the women Ellis interviewed attempted to sneak in new shoes by trading her old pair with a visitor, violating prison rules. She was put into solitary confinement before her disciplinary hearing on the matter. While awaiting her hearing, she said she prayed alone in her cell, and heard the voice of God tell her to be honest about the circumstances. Adhering to her newfound religion, the woman told the truth at the hearing, confessing to trying to make the shoe swap. She was sentenced to an additional 200 days of solitary confinement.
Ellis said religious faith helped many interviewees manage to not only accept harsh punishments like this, as well as long sentences or parole denials, but to find meaning in the difficult times.
“A common theme that I heard was that ‘I’ll get out in God’s time,’” Ellis said. “Many women I talked with believed that if they were denied parole or if they were serving a long sentence, it was because God had work for them to do in prison. They found a profound sense of purpose in that belief.”
Ellis got the chance to interview several women who returned home after serving long sentences. While some of them had fallen back into addiction or crime and were caught in the revolving door of the criminal justice system—and others had moved on and wanted to put the past behind them—a few women were volunteering in prison, trying to offer some of the comfort and support that had been shown to them.
Going forward, Ellis hopes this book will help religious leaders and volunteers understand how meaningful their work in prisons is to people of faith.
“I would encourage them not to stop doing this very important work, and how transformative it would be if people of many faiths could invest their time and resources into prison ministry,” Ellis said. “For example, even if there are only a handful of Catholic or Jewish women in a prison community, or only a few Muslim women, those women's faith lives are still very important."
In addition to the publication of the book, Ellis’s dissertation and several journal articles have come out of this project. But the biggest accomplishment, she said, was having the book draft reviewed by the interview subjects, who offered their feedback and ultimately approved what was written about them.
“Getting their final seal of approval meant everything to me,” Ellis said. “That was the most rewarding part of this process.”