The New Religious Prisons and Their Retributivist Commitments

42 Pages Posted: 8 May 2006

See all articles by Marc O. DeGirolami

Marc O. DeGirolami

St. John's University - School of Law


The rise of the religious, or faith-based, prison at the turn of the twenty-first century bears witness to the remarkable resilience of religion in shaping the philosophy of punishment. In the last decade, prisons that incorporate religion in various ways have sprouted around the country and there are strong, albeit preliminary and inconclusive, indications that inmates who participate in religious instruction and programming recidivate at significantly lower rates than those who do not. The early success of these programs (and, some say, the preferential treatment accorded to participants in them) has resulted in high demand and long waiting lists. Spurred by its initial success, Florida has recently opened its second faith-based prison, this one for women, and more such programs are presently being planned and implemented.

Religious prisons raise serious questions of constitutionality and effectiveness, and most of the critical commentary to date has focused either on the considerable Establishment Clause concerns or the programs' inconclusive recidivism results. This article explores the criminological commitments of religious prisons. Though religious prisons serve rehabilitative aims, this article emphasizes the importance of their retributive goals - what Professor R.A. Duff has termed the censure-communicating purpose of punishment and the Three 'R'S of Punishment, repentance, reform, and reconciliation - in justifying the use of religious programming in prisons. The paper offers an argument to skeptics who claim that religious programming serves no purpose absent an unequivocal showing of rehabilitative effectiveness. It claims that even if the evidence of reduced recidivism has been inflated or manipulated, as many critics claim, religious programming may be justified theoretically by reference to its potential for a special manifestation of penitential retribution that might advance secular ends.

Keywords: Religion, Prisons

Suggested Citation

DeGirolami, Marc O., The New Religious Prisons and Their Retributivist Commitments. Arkansas Law Review, 2006. Available at SSRN:

Marc O. DeGirolami (Contact Author)

St. John's University - School of Law ( email )

8000 Utopia Parkway
Jamaica, NY 11439
United States

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