Faith in Isolation, by Bishop Council Nedd II

Bishop Council Nedd II

Faith in Isolation

by Bishop Council Nedd II (bio)

I have never served time behind bars.  As a priest, however, I have made my fair share of prison visitations.  If there is one thing I have learned from these visits, it is that there are diverse personalities among the incarcerated.

From my experience, there are some prisoners you are secretly happy to see locked away from society.  There are those who did wrong and are simply serving their sentences.  Others cause you to wonder what miscarriage of justice occurred to land such a timid soul into such a hostile and unforgiving place.  And, while I have not seen it personally, I have heard from my prison chaplain colleagues about meeting the glance of someone who is pure evil.

There are also those who are “on fire for the Lord” – who want to be a beacon of something better and greater for all who share his prison home. 

What would happen if all these people of faith were removed from the general prison population and placed them in a separate facility?  This is a new trend in the American penal system: faith-based prison dorms or prisons exclusively serving a pious population. 

Lawtey Correctional Institute in Raiford, Florida, for example, was created in 2003 as the first-of-its-kind faith-based prison.  While a belief in God in not a prerequisite, 26 religions were represented among the initial population of the medium-security facility.  Local religious volunteers teach inmates about things such as good parenting and anger management in the evenings.

At first consideration, religious restitution seems like a wonderful idea.  Wardens and prison guards all talk about the dramatic drop in drug use, fights and rape at these facilities.  Additionally, prisoners are free to practice their faith without the fear and the distractions incumbent in regular prison life. 

But my mind immediately goes to St. Paul, who spent a fair amount of time in prison.  Through it all, he never stopped working to bring people to Christ.

As St. Paul and other early Christians spread their faith, the Romans tried to stop them.  Executions of these missionaries created the martyrs who promoted their faith more through their ultimate sacrifice.  To counter this unintended situation, the Romans resorted to torture and maiming – creating those known as the confessors.   The martyrs and confessors are no more, but their legend and legacy lived on much longer than their actual missionary work. 

Wardens and guards who say there is a less volatile environment in the faith-based prisons will also tell you that the prisoners who are being placed in these segregated environs are the ones who had a calming effect on the general population before their transfer.  Whisking them away as if the rapture occurred is not the answer.  It may be safe.  It may be easy for the guards who get those assignments.  But professed Christians in prison are being called to a very different ministry, much like the confessors and martyrs of the past. 

Two federal prison chaplains I know further tell me that the Christianity flourishing in prisons is a very immature Christianity.  It tends to be a mile wide and a foot deep.  It often begins with a mimicking of what is seen on television and heard on radio, and then it digresses like a game of telephone – with no one knowing what the original source actually said or intended to convey.  Having answers to questions about faith and others to guide people having crises and trials of faith is the only way to bring people to a more evolved level of faith – hence the need for modern-day confessors. 

Also, removing Christians and others of faith from prisons is removing the witness.  Imprisoned Christians in particular can have a profound effect on those around them.  We need look no further than the thief on the cross.  While most Christians are not called to a monastic life or life as a hermit, there are some who receive a genuine calling. 

Christianity has never been easy, and prison is not supposed to be.  So prison is the last place from which we should be extracting faith.

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Project 21 member Council Nedd II, the bishop of the Chesapeake and the Northeast for the Episcopal Missionary Church, is the honorary chairman of In God We Trust ( – a group formed to oppose anti-religious bigotry.  Comments may be sent to [email protected].

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