by Winnifred Fallers Sullivan. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009. 304pp. Cloth. $35.00/£24.95. ISBN: 9780691133591.

Reviewed by Faith Lutze, Department of Political Science/Program in Criminal Justice, Washington State University. Email: lutze [at]


PRISON RELIGION provides a dynamic interdisciplinary analysis of a recent trial challenging the constitutionality of a faith-based residential rehabilitation program in an Iowa state prison (AMERICANS UNITED FOR SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE v. PRISON FELLOWSHIP MINISTRIES). Sullivan’s scholarly integration of law, religion, history, and penology achieves what most works on faith-based social service programs fail to accomplish and that is to answer the question, “What is the FAITH in ‘faith-based’” (p.1)? Her utilization of the trial transcripts, in addition to the program materials presented by Prison Fellowship Ministries (PMF) and the faith-based InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI) program, reveals the nuances of how language, symbolism, law, and religion intertwine and shift over time. Through the presentation of the actual words, interpretations, and experiences of individuals (both keepers and kept) who testified during the trial, she ultimately leads us through a detailed consideration of “the ongoing reintegration and ‘naturalizing’ of religion in the United States and its intersection with evolving understandings of the meaning of ‘disestablishment’” (p.2). She convincingly argues that the trial testimony shows how religious authority in the United States has shifted from traditional institutions to the individual, thus making disestablishment next to impossible.

Sullivan begins by presenting how IFI was established within the Iowa state prison, how the program was funded, and how inmates were selected for participation. She skillfully presents the social and political context of the Iowa state prison system and how budgetary restraints severely limited access to secular prison rehabilitation programs, thus making IFI’s faith-based program a solitary option for many inmates seeking change. She presents two models of how faith-based programs are generally implemented within U.S. prisons. The first model places secular evidence-based rehabilitation programs at the center of treatment with faith-based instruction and related activities being additional options for inmates to participate. This model generally relies upon volunteers from the community and a prison chaplain to organize religious activities within the prison. The second model, representative of IFI, places the faith-based program at the center of inmate life within an identified unit that isolates participants from the general inmate population and, as in this case, emphasizes full immersion in “Christian” values. This model often relies upon state funding to operate the program. Sullivan contends that both models are expected to show positive [*619] results by increasing pro-social behavior and decreasing recidivism.

It is Sullivan’s discussion of how IFI presents the process of change and measures of success for offenders that may be of most interest to those concerned with program integrity and prison treatment programs. Although many claims are made about the effectiveness of faith-based programs, few methodologically sound studies have been conducted that account for differences in offender motivation, participant selection, and program components. Unlike secular evidenced-based programs, when presenting the process for change and the outcomes for success, faith-based prison programs must serve two constituents: religious stakeholders and the secular state. It is within this context that Sullivan uses examples from the trial testimony and IFI publications to show how IFI staff articulated measures of success by switching between the language of Bible-believing Christians and the corrections community as if they measured the same thing. Christian values and outcomes were presented as being representative of both interfaith and secular values and outcomes. Inmates, however, did distinguish between IFI’s singular denomination of evangelical Christianity and their personal religious beliefs and practices. Given the limited options to participate in other treatment programs, Catholics, Jews, Lutherans, Muslims, and Native Americans testified that they were denied access to programs representing their faith, programs that were truly interdenominational, or secular evidenced-based treatment programs. Sullivan’s presentation gives clarity to the notion that the religious context in which one practices and believes in shared values across religions differs, and these differences may not be served through a unique form of Christianity.

It is at this point where Sullivan’s interdisciplinary expertise moves our respective disciplines forward in analyzing the importance of religion in understanding faith-based social service delivery and the constitution. Through a historical and sociological review, she brings us beyond the abstract notion of “faith” and discusses IFI and the Prison Fellowship Ministry within the context of contemporary U.S. evangelical culture. She concludes that, “in the context of a multitude of ‘Christian’ phenomena, the Christianity of IFI appears a distinctive and specific form of Christianity” (p.65). Sullivan easily weaves us through a complex history of the prison, politics, culture, and religion that is unique to the United States. It is through this interdisciplinary understanding that she inspires the necessity to analyze legal concepts of disestablishment through multiple lenses.

Sullivan concludes with the argument that the laws to separate church and state are rooted in a pre-modern model of religious authority that is based on hierarchal and institutionalized religions. Current debate swings from affirmative government support for the practice of various religions to total separation between church and state. Sullivan proposes that a third option is emerging in the United States, “one that acknowledges the impossibility of both separation and accommodation in their traditional forms” (p.228). Through a review of Gilpin’s typology of American Secularism (religious secularism, [*620] irreligious secularism, areligious secularism), she introduces how social historical contexts influence the overlapping nature of religion and the law, and how each is practiced. Through the three secularisms, she provides the opportunity for religious and legal scholars to expand their analysis beyond the dichotomy of church and state to consider the existence of “spaces for religious practice” defined not as ideologies or institutions.

Interestingly, after presenting a vibrant, interdisciplinary review that addresses the debate concerning faith-based initiatives within prisons and their constitutionality, the very last paragraph of Sullivan’s book contemplates that, “A modest step in addressing the scandal and brutality of massive incarceration in the United States might begin by listening to the prisoners, rather than to the tired debate about religious clauses” (p.235). These final words capture what is so refreshing about her analysis. Integrated throughout each chapter are the words of the inmates, corrections staff, and IFI staff about their experiences, beliefs, and interpretations of a prison faith-based program. Sullivan captures the expert and the lay person, the public and the personal, the intellectual and the emotional, the mundane and the interesting that actually inspires the ongoing and sometimes “tired” debate. This book is relevant to scholars and students who are interested in moving beyond over simplistic accounts of policy initiatives and their legal consequences and into the interdisciplinary complexity of criminal justice, public law, religion, and sociology.


© Copyright 2009 by the author, Faith Lutze.