Erzen (Religion and Gender Studies/Univ. of Puget Sound; Fanpire: The Twilight Saga and the Women Who Love It, 2012, etc.) examines the rise of ministries in some of America’s largest prison systems, critiquing their motives and effectiveness.
The author’s research is based mainly on such prisons as Texas’ Darrington Unit and the Louisiana State Penitentiary, along with a smattering of other prisons in other states. Erzen focuses especially on Protestant Christian ministries, which evangelize prisoners with the goal of transforming them into ministers within the prison system itself. Though admitting at times that these ministries provide a certain level of meaning and self-esteem for prisoners serving lengthy sentences, on the whole, it seems the author sees these ministries as self-serving ways of controlling a bloated prison population. Ultimately, she argues, they continue a race-based view of retribution, punishment, and proper “place” in society, which goes back to antebellum days. Erzen also notes that faith-based prison ministries fail to rise above a simple focus on the prisoner at the expense of a larger view of the prison problem: “In focusing on individual conversion, many faith-based prison ministries neglect the broader issues of how people came to prison and end up fortifying the prison’s rationale of control, surveillance, governance, and vengeance.” Unfortunately, the author focuses too heavily on a handful of large prisons in the South, problematically assuming that these cases mirror a national trend. Readers are wondering what faith-based prison ministries in Maine or Minnesota or Montana must be like, as opposed to those in Texas and Louisiana. Erzen also laments the predominance of Evangelical and Pentecostal denominations in prison ministries, while traditions as diverse as Islam and Wicca are underrepresented, yet she goes on to admit this trend is due to a lack of volunteers from other faith traditions.
Though replete with engaging vignettes, Erzen’s work is too narrowly focused and unrevealing.