Expert studies churches behind bars

A Cal State Fullerton expert believes religion is a positive force in the lives of long-term inmates.

Jason Sexton, a University Honors lecturer who specializes in theology, is studying how prison churches affect prisoners while they’re incarcerated and after they are released.

His research focuses on the interracial and intergenerational components of prison churches.

Through his research, Sexton – who, in the 1990s, was incarcerated for three years by the California Youth Authority – hopes to learn more about churches in California prisons, specifically those associated with the Christian faith.

“There is a humanity that I think the prison church embodies that is extraordinary,” Sexton said.

“My goal is to give an interdisciplinary account – and hopefully the most serious account – of the incarcerated church,” he said.

Sexton is interviewing about 50 formerly incarcerated people, the majority of whom were imprisoned in California prisons for a significant amount of time. Some have been directly involved with churches while serving time in prisons, others have not.

His interview sources are male and female adults, as well as juveniles.

“I think the best way of understanding it is by the accounts of those who have experienced it,” he said of prison churches.

Questions Sexton plans to address include: Is there hope for rehabilitation while in prison? What types of reformation agents are available? Why do incarcerated individuals join religious communities?

“I am trying to use theological concepts to make sense of it,” he said.

There are a number of reasons as to why a prisoner will turn to religion.

Motivation, direction, meaning for life, hope for the future, peace of mind, positive self-esteem and change in lifestyle, are counted among positive reasons, Sexton writes in his 2015 article, “Toward a Prison Theology of California’s Ecclesia Incarcerate.”

His writings are based on research done by Harry R. Dammer, professor and chairman of the sociology and criminal justice department at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania in his paper “Reasons for Religious Involvement in the Correctional Environment.”

Insincere reasons for which prisoners may become involved include protection, a designated time and place to meet with other inmates, interaction with women volunteers and access to prison resources.

“My research has shown that those with long-term sentences who participate in the church’s life nearly always have a positive experience, if any experience in the prison can be quantified in this way,” Sexton said.

“Some out here have told me they miss the community they enjoyed with the incarcerated church, where they just had each other, in a kind of deep familial bond,” he said.

Most noteworthy to Sexton is how races intertwine in prison churches.

“Your race dictates everything (in prison),” he said. “It showcases the structures that are at play in the prisons.”

But when it comes to prison churches, race doesn’t seem to be as significant.

Prison churches transcend racial barriers and participants will oftentimes assist one another in overcoming hardships like drug addiction and violence, Sexton said.

These churches are also transcending generations of prisoners. Sexton is interested in whether age is a factor in how churches attract or affect participants.

“When it works, it seems to me that Christians uniquely care for their own in ways that display a special solidarity,” he said. “And when this happens, coupled with the interracial dynamic, it’s quite unique in the carceral context.”

Sexton’s fundamental goal lies in evaluating California’s prisons and reformation opportunities through his analysis.

According to Sexton’s article, since 1980, the prison population in California has nearly grown sixfold

The California Department of Corrections reports the state’s prison population is at about 127,000.

The issue is hard-pressing because many incarcerated individuals in California prisons will one day be released and should be able to transition back to the workforce and positively contribute to society, Sexton said.

He believes an alliance between prison churches and churches on the outside could prove beneficial in the transition of former inmates back into life outside of prison.

“I am curious to see how theology can help us understand (California prisons) better and do better with it,” he said.

The interviews conducted by Sexton with former prisoners will be housed in CSUF’s Center for Oral and Public History, which holds the largest oral history archive in the state.

The center will assist Sexton, who is writing a book on his research and findings, in transcribing his interviews.

In the future, he hopes to learn more about prison churches of other faiths represented in California prisons and compare the findings to his research on Christianity.

Recently, Sexton was awarded a $10,000 grant from Brookfield Residential Properties, Inc. for his ongoing research.

Angie Marcos: