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Moral and Religious Influences - Religion In Prisons

inmates offenders cells reform

Religious organizations and their representatives have had a strong influence on how offenders are treated in prisons and jails. Churches, in fact, were one of the first institutions to build facilities to house offenders. The word "penitentiary" comes from the word penitent, meaning giving penance (confession and forgiveness of sin) or the idea that offenders would pay penance for their crimes.

The church provided offenders with an opportunity to admit their guilt and convert to religious traditions. An example in the American colonies was the Quakers of Pennsylvania who almost always favored incarceration over the harsher and permanent alternative, execution.

Many colonists immigrating to America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries came to escape religious persecution or oppression by their governments, in Britain and elsewhere. When the Founding Fathers wrote the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution in 1791, known as the Bill of Rights, they included the freedom of practicing religion in the First Amendment. How this freedom applied to prison inmates, however, would take years to fully resolve in the U.S. legal system.

The first state penitentiaries in the United States in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries placed inmates in isolation, in their own separate cells. Religious officials or clergy interacted with inmates on a one-to-one basis. The Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia provided inmates with a chance to reform by placing a copy of the Bible in their cells. It was believed that isolated inmates would have plenty of time to consider their actions and repent. Religious organizations began providing educational opportunities as a way to reform individuals as well. Prison chaplains would often be the prison's educator; they also helped keep prison records and performed other administrative duties.


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