God in Captivity

The Rise of Faith-Based Prison Ministries in the Age of Mass Incarceration


An eye-opening account of how and why evangelical Christian ministries are flourishing in prisons across the United States

Starred Review in Publisher’s Weekly March 2017:

Religion scholar Erzen (Straight to Jesus) delivers another excellent, gripping ethnography… This is an enlightening and unflinching examination of the tragedies of mass incarceration and the complicated role that faith-based ministries play in prisoner rehabilitation and the beliefs around it. 

-Publisher’s Weekly

“For those who operate within the carceral complex, this book is an important read. For those who seek to better understand the complicated ways in which religion and incarceration mingle, it is a required read.”
The New York Journal of Books

Throughout the United States, faith-based prison ministries are flourishing amid an increasingly punitive system of mass incarceration. These predominantly evangelical Christian ministries are mainly concerned with salvaging individual souls: faith-based groups believe that each person is capable of transformation, but only through born-again conversion. While these ministries don’t view prisoners as incorrigible, neither are they concerned with the injustice of our prison system.

Tanya Erzen spoke with prisoners and members of faith-based ministries in Florida, Texas, Louisiana, Ohio, Indiana, and Washington, at both male and female prisons, to better understand both the nature of these ministries and their effects. What she discovered raises questions about whether these groups violate the separation of church and state; often, educational opportunities for prisoners are tied to these ministries, and non-Christians are frequently marginalized and excluded from their benefits. At the same time, Erzen found that many prison ministries make undeniably positive impacts on the lives of prisoners. Men and women who have no hope of ever leaving prison can achieve personal growth, a sense of community, and a degree of liberation through participation.

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