Other Voices

Dallas judge’s gift of Bible to Amber Guyger reflects importance of faith in prison

The conclusion of former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger’s trial for the murder of Botham Jean attracted considerable attention for the extraordinary display of mercy from Jean’s family toward the killer of their son and brother.

What happened moments later seemed to be unprecedented, and yet for me, it was not at all surprising.

Guyger told Judge Tammy Kemp that she didn’t have a Bible and asked if God would forgive her. The judge embraced Guyger and gave the convicted murderer her own Bible.

As the chairman of criminology and criminal justice at The University of Texas at Arlington, I have studied religion in prisons and how faith plays a role in the everyday lives of prisoners. And while the judge’s actions seemed off to many, they actually hark back to the beginnings of prisons in the U.S.

More than 300 years ago, the earliest American prisons were guided by the Quaker belief that prisoners be isolated with only a Bible and other religious reading materials. Such methods were meant to rehabilitate offenders by providing an environment that allowed for reflection and remorse.

Guyger’s questions about God and mercy were not at all unusual for those who find themselves sentenced to prison. One of the more famous examples is Charles Colson, best known as a Watergate pariah-turned-prisoner-advocate who created Prison Fellowship Ministries after his release.

In my 20 years of studying prison programs, I have learned that religion can be a valuable tool for inmates looking to improve themselves and for a correctional system that largely fails to curb the criminal behavior of those in its custody.

Today, the rate of recidivism among convicted criminals in the U.S. is at 67%, meaning two of every three inmates will be re-arrested within three years of exiting prison. About half will be incarcerated again. That’s more of a revolving door than rehabilitation.

Faith, however, can mitigate this problem — and the evidence is clear.

A review of more than 270 studies from the last 75 years reveals the positive and lasting effects of religious participation behind prison walls. Faith plays a significant role in an offender’s decision to refrain from criminal activity after release.

A combination of faith-based programs and education, life-skills training, mentoring and aftercare benefit society by lowering re-offenses and furthering the correctional goal of rehabilitation.

We all should support multiple and varied avenues that potentially help inmates, such as GED training, drug treatment, job training and faith-based programs. In addition to offering avenues of rehabilitation for offenders, the evidence shows it may make our society safer by reducing recidivism.

In the prison context, there is a constant battle between justice and mercy — punishing offenders but also showing compassion and a way forward.

It is in our best interests to have different types of programming involved to rehabilitate inmates and reduce recidivism, including faith-based programs. That is justice and mercy.

Kent Ryan Kerley is the chair of criminology and criminal justice at The University of Texas at Arlington and editor of the new book “Finding Freedom in Confinement: The Role of Religion in Prison Life.”
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