As an ex-felon and an atheist, let me tell you that you never feel more alone in your lack of belief as you do in prison. Let me stress that anecdotes do not equal evidence, but literally everyone I met in prison was religious. I have no doubt that a good percentage of that religiosity was intended for the parole board, but a decent amount was sincere belief as well. Religion was pushed as a way to turn your life around, and even though many prisoners will return to prison after release, very few want to return.
When I was in state prison, I was inmate leader of a therapeutic community for drug offenders. I ran classes for other inmates discussing S.O.S, Rational Recovery, and SMART, non-religious alternatives to 12 step programs. My classes were not popular, and one of the main complaints about my leadership of the community was my atheism, even though I rarely brought it up. When you graduated the program, the other inmates each get to say something to you in front of the group, basically “good luck and I hope I never see you again” type of thing. 18 of the 25 members of the community used this time at my graduation to urge me to find Jesus.
I bring this up because of a post I found at The Atheist Experience this week. Chuck Colson died this week. Besides being a Watergate felon, Mr. Colson’s claim to fame has been his extreme Christian beliefs and his prison ministry. I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of Mr. Colson’s born again experience. I feel that his brand of evangelical Christianity has done much harm, but I do not doubt that he thought he was doing good. One of his greatest “successes,” one that he spared no breath in highlighting at every opportunity, was the success of his Prison Fellowship.
What Colson claimed was that they studied the recidivism rates of prisoners who completed his ministry program and compared them with those who did not. Recidivism means that within a certain amount of time after they were released from prison, they were reincarcerated for committing new crimes. Colson always argued the study demonstrated that those who completed the program experienced a significantly decreased recidivism rate.
So if all you did was listen to Colson, his prison fellowship seemed like a rousing success. Inmates who completed the program were less likely to return to prison, it says so right there, you can’t argue with the data.
Friends, you are about to see exactly how you can cook the data to show anything you want it to show.
What he didn’t tell you is that the standards for “completing” the program dramatically skew the numbers in his favor. A person is only defined as a graduate if they stick with the program for a period of time, then are released from jail, and get a job after their release. In other words, a person who sat in on the ministry classes for the required amount of time, left the program, and then couldn’t find a job, wouldn’t be considered to have completed a program. Therefore, if they were arrested later, that would be counted as a win for Colson, because they didn’t do what they what they were supposed to, therefore this proves that failing to “complete” the program was correlated with their arrest.
But this is a total cheat. If you simply removed the ministry from the equation, and only compared prisoners who got a job to those who didn’t get a job, obviously the employed prisoners would be far less likely to go back to jail. They don’t need to steal stuff to get money! So here we have Chuck Colson deliberately excluding the group most likely to go back to jail, and then giving his ministry credit for something that happens after they leave. The study doesn’t even attempt to demonstrate that people who take the program are more likely to get jobs.
In fact, what the study showed when you looked at the raw numbers was that among prisoners who simply entered the program — including both graduates and “dropouts”, the recidivism rates were slightly higher than the control group that wasn’t involved at all. Or to put it simply, if the program had not existed at all, it’s possible that fewer of them would have returned to jail.
Today’s lesson? Anytime you are presented with a study that trumpets the effectiveness of a similar program, make sure you can actually see the data, and not just their interpretation of the data. Especially studies relating to drug addiction and/or recidivism rates. Believe me, I’ve seen internal AA data. To call 12 step programs ineffective would be a gift. Prison ministries rarely do any real good in the lives of inmates.