Father David Kelly sits in front of a Restorative Justice Peace Circle at Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation, where he is the founder and Executive Director, located in Back of the Yards. Credit: Jordan Esparza

It is no mystery to Mark McCombs that the presence of God is strong behind prison walls. The monotony of day to day life is enforced even in the color scheme. “Everybody’s wearing blue and all the walls are gray or all the walls are beige,” said McCombs. Yet it is the bleak environment that allowed McCombs to grow his spiritual connection with a higher being. “All of those distractions that keep us from hearing God all the time are gone,” he said. “It’s much easier, much more meaningful. It makes it louder in a place where you really need a friend who’s just gonna sit and listen.”  

McCombs is the executive director of Kolbe House Jail Ministry, a faith-based organization located less than a mile away from Cook County Jail, and whose proximity and reputation for helping in the re-entry process has made it a first stop for those recently released from the jail. Mark’s own experience being incarcerated has guided his career in the rehabilitation and re-entry world, where he says his relationship with God saved and transformed him.  

In a country grappling with challenges in its criminal justice system, faith-based groups are playing a profound role in the lives of the incarcerated and those re-entering society after release from correctional facilities. 

The Weekly spoke with leaders of local faith-based groups, formerly incarcerated people, and those who have the authority to influence rehabilitation policy to better understand the impact and implications of religion within the American criminal justice system.

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Faith-based groups have addressed the needs of the incarcerated since the 1800s when the modern American prison was conceived as a more humane and “Christian” mode of punishment than the brutal methods used in England. In this new vision, isolation, silence, work, and soul consultation with a prison chaplain were meant to rehabilitate and edify what was perceived by many as a growing corruption in American values. 

While the prisons of today have some important distinctions from the early models, such as the privatization of some corrections facilities, a key vestige of the past remains: the influential role of religion in all aspects of prison life. 

Today, incarcerated people have the right to practice their faith, and every corrections facility has a chapel. Since the George W. Bush administration, however, the US government has displayed an openness toward extending government contracts to faith-based groups and programs. The Bush administration established the White House Office of Faith-Based Initiative, aimed at addressing bias against new religious groups hoping to gain government contracts for social services. 

Prison religion is sometimes reduced to ‘Jailhouse Religion’, where incarcerated people are seen as disingenuous, “using religion while incarcerated as a means of getting by and then leaving your Bible at the door,” explains Willette Benford, who was incarcerated for twenty-four years and is an advocate for survivors of the criminal justice system. 

The institutionalization of faith-based reform, and its acceptance as an alternative to other secular programs like education, however, seems to legitimize religion behind bars as a cost effective way for the state to facilitate holistic, inner change. The presence of faith-based groups within the prison, especially those with state funding, have proved to be controversial from a legal and moral point of view. 

Christian groups, which make up the majority of faith-based groups working in prisons, often point to the Bible’s references to Jesus’ time in prison as a basis to serve the needs of those who are imprisoned. For example, Kolbe House Jail Ministry responds to the gospel message of “I was in Prison and you visited me (Matthew 25:36).”

Biblical verses that refer to divine forgiveness also call some Christians to action. Pastor Corey Brooks, who is also known as the Rooftop Pastor, created project H.O.O.D to provide resources to the community surrounding the Parkway Garden Homes. The gang violence in the area, colloquially known as O-Block, has amassed international attention, as it has been sensationalized by local rappers such as Chief Keef, Lil Durk, and Fredo Santana. 

In his work, Pastor Brooks draws inspiration from Isaiah 43:18-19, which states “forget the former things; do not dwell on the past”, and which he feels “speaks volumes, especially to re-entry…You are a product of your past, but you’re not a prisoner of your past. I think trying to get people to understand that is vital.”

James Lee Williams was incarcerated in federal prison from 2000 to 2015. Throughout his sentence, he was transferred between different facilities across the country and participated in a wide range of programming, both secular and religious. He recalls that while not every prison had extensive religious programming like Bible studies from outside groups, every prison had a chapel that was often used as an interfaith space. Though he is a Christian, Williams describes how he would attend Islamic services with his friends, finding value in the different ways people worship God. 

“I just liked the word. I liked the way they spoke…I never learned the words and all that stuff, but I just liked how they prayed,” he said. “They used to have guests coming in too. Muslim guests. They used to give us oil to smell good, stuff like that.”

People participate in religious services in prison for many different reasons, according to Williams. “Some people see [religion in prison as] a protection. Like go to them, go to the Christians, they’re gonna protect you, go to the Muslims, they gonna protect you,” he said. “But sometimes it’s not like that and sometimes it is like that.” 

Mark McCombs said that Kolbe House’s religious programming within the prison tends to attract new members both from word of mouth, along with the fact that “​​people are looking for something to do. I think we catch a lot of people because they fall into the category of anything you can do to kill an hour is one hour closer to going home, and then they get in they find out that they like it.”

Not every prison has an extensive amount of religious programming offered. The facility staff’s personal views on programming rehabilitation strategy will ultimately dictate which groups are allowed in.

As the Cook County Sheriff, Tom Dart is responsible for the oversight of the Cook County Jail and is an advocate of including faith-based groups within the prison’s programming efforts. Dart said that some jail administrators do not see value in investing in rehabilitative programs due to the transient population, as people typically serve longer sentences in prisons than in jails. 

But he “would argue that, practically speaking, people are staying longer [than anticipated] and even if you only have someone for a short time, you should come up with shorter programs. If you’ve been brought into the criminal justice system, this person has some issues, so while you have them, I think it’s reckless not to work on these issues.” 

While Dart believes the programs that faith-based groups offer in the jail, including worship services, spiritual guidance, and religious education, are beneficial in reducing fights between inmates, “the bigger [benefit] is to get into individuals positive messaging.”

“[Religious programming] gets people to be reflective…it’s the transformative effect of religious services,” he said.

Willette Benford recalls “how prison is a very hopeless place. And so, those that are coming in to bring the Word of God and minister to individuals that are inside, bring hope.” 

Faith-based organizations also meet practical needs, especially for incarcerated parents, making sure their children have gifts for Christmas and new clothes. “Faith-based organizations played a huge role in my life, in my child’s life, and a lot of the lives of the other ladies that were incarcerated,” said Benford.

Much of loved ones’ life events and milestones are missed while serving time in prison. According to a 2021 study by the Sentencing Project, one of the consequences of the “tough on crime policies” of the 70’s is that approximately 200,000 people are serving life sentences in America. Before the policy shifts, the total prison population of the country was under 200,000 people. 

When the rest of one’s life will be spent in prison, the state’s focus shifts away from prioritizing rehabilitation as a means to combat recidivism. Some scholars, such as Tanya Ezren, who wrote God in Captivity: The Rise of Faith-based Prison Ministries in the Age of Mass Incarceration found that religion in prison has been functional and important for many ‘lifers’, offering an opportunity to find community and growth in a largely hopeless situation. 

To Mark McCombs, to achieve a sense of peace and freedom in prison, where “you got nothing left to lose,” one must submit to their situation and to God. “If I had to pick one thing to tell [incarcerated] people: surrender. Give yourself up to God, whatever your concept of God is, and trust it because you’re in a place where you have next to no control. When you do that, it is freeing.”

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Every year, approximately 20,000 people return home from prison in Illinois. The outside world is harsh on those with a criminal record. Newly returning citizens are immediately met with a myriad of practical and emotional challenges including a precarious search for housing, navigating arduous government processes, and rebuilding broken family relationships. 

James Lee Williams said that while he was determined to make an honest living after prison, nearly every open role he applied to had barriers to entry for those with a record. “I did the application, I passed the test. I did all that. Then I did the background check…. I did my time already. So why y’all saying I can’t work here?” he said.

James Lee Williams stands outside the National Museum of Public Housing office at 625 N Kingsbury St, where he is an educational docent for the current exhibit, Evicted. Credit: Jordan Esparza

Willette Benford was appointed as the Director of Re-entry in Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office from 2022-2023 and still works in the re-entry field. “I am always going to be in the re-entry field because of the amount of time that I spent incarcerated and the things that I encountered coming home. I want to make sure that individuals that are returning back from incarceration are set up for success.” 

Faith-based groups often go beyond work within the prison and support newly returning citizens. Father David Kelly founded Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation (PBMR) in 2004 after a long career working with those impacted by violence and incarceration. His career began in the 70’s as a volunteer social worker in a Cincinnati Jail, where his encounters with the “most marginalized and isolated people” forever touched his life. He’s worked in the re-entry and rehabilitation world ever since.

A study by the Prison Policy Initiative found that formerly incarcerated Americans are nearly ten times more likely to be homeless than those without a record, and those in the re-entry advocacy world tend to identify housing as one of the most difficult challenges to address. 

According to Father Kelly, “some people can’t get parole if they have no housing, and if you did thirty years in prison, oftentimes your family connections are weakened.”  The stigma of a record also complicates this process. “A lot of times an individual is denied housing based off of a thirty-year-old conviction,” he said. 

PBMR has twelve apartments available to newly re-entering people, as well as a workforce development program that helps individuals build and develop their careers as they re-enter society. 

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A study done by the Vera Institute of Justice found that for 2021, Cook County spends $81,734 annually per prisoner, a stark rise of almost 150% in the past decade. With ever rising incarceration rates and thus costs to the state, whose responsibility is it to reduce recidivism and foster sustainable re-entry? 

For Mark McCombs, though religious groups can aid in this process, the responsibility of addressing these problems falls on the state, which he believes “absolutely has the capacity to change people’s mindsets. No cash bail and the Pre-Trial Fairness Act changed people’s mindsets to a large extent. I think the fact that we [faith-based organizations] have to step in to do it is because the state doesn’t. I would love to have the State of Illinois put me out of business.”

For others such as Pastor Corey Brooks, religious institutions need to play a strong role in the rehabilitation and re-entry space, as “the state can only regulate laws and things like that, but they can’t help people have a change of heart.” 

Another debate exists surrounding trust in institutions and whether the same criminal justice system that is perceived as cold and punitive can be the same institution that fosters unconditional love and care that many turn to religious programming for. 

Father David Kelly believes that the state has the power to positively impact the criminal justice system, but that its role is to trust and support the community in achieving its own form of community sustainability. “I had a case where I did a [restorative justice] circle with a young man who killed a teenage daughter,” Father Kelly said. “The mother wanted to know why and all these kinds of things… Eventually, we came together, where that mom was able to be in a safe space with the person who killed her daughter. Healing is possible in those kinds of spaces when it’s done right and when it is given the time and when people are ready for it, but the state had to allow for it. They didn’t do it. They probably didn’t even understand it, but they had to allow for it because that young person is still incarcerated.”

It is difficult to identify what is explicitly religious from a legal standpoint. The First Amendment does not explicitly stipulate “the separation of church and state”; however, its establishment clause prohibits the state’s ‘establishment’ of any one religion. The definition of establishment is interpreted in different ways, however, many (but not all) legal scholars interpret this clause as a measure to enforce that separation. 

Some believe that outsourcing rehabilitative efforts to religious groups within state-funded facilities blurs the line between church and state, especially groups that arguably attempt to convert participants with state funding. Others, such as Tom Dart, “understand where people are coming from when they say that, but because of the voluntary nature of it and the truly soft sell of it,” do not see an issue. 

Faith-based programs vary on their ideological views regarding the role of religion in facilitating rehabilitation and re-entry. While some see religion as a tool that can be offered but is not necessarily essential to one’s personal growth, others see the spiritual “transformation” of participants as the sole route to reform.

Prison Fellowship is a well-known faith-based prison ministry that adopts a more aggressively religious framework. The implementation of their controversial programming was banned in Iowa for violating separation of church and state principles. 

Prison Fellowship’s InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI) offered an immersive rehabilitation program within a separated wing of an Iowa prison that attempted to reframe participants’ thinking under the biblical transformation model, a religious approach that teaches ‘all problems in life arise from a condition of sin.’ Participants were required to attend religious teachings in order to reap the benefits of the program, including improved living conditions away from the general population while in prison, a higher likelihood of parole, and a job mentorship program. 

Though participation in this faith-based rehabilitation program was voluntary, concerns about its coercive nature and constitutionality were raised in Americans United for the Separation of Church and State v. Prison Fellowship Ministries (AU v. PFM), in which the court ruled the state’s contract with PFM’s InnerChange Freedom Initiative in the Iowa prison unconstitutional. 

According to the case testimony, prisoners outside of the Christian faith who were initially attracted to its benefits ultimately felt discomfort toward IFI. A Native American participant in the IFI program described how while he was still allowed to join after disclosing he is not a Christian, during a monthly check in with an IFI advisor, he asked if he was saved, if he believed in Jesus, and was told that going out to a sweat lodge ceremony is worshiping false idols. 

Similar experiences of discomfort and disappointment with the program’s alleged failure to be interfaith were reflected in the testimony of a Muslim prisoner, who ultimately decided not to join IFI, despite the program’s benefits and claim to welcome Muslims. He testified, “From the information that was given to me about the IFI program, and its strict Christian-based curriculum, there was no possibility for me, a Sunni Muslim, to partake in that program without desecrating my faith. We believe in one God… For me to embrace any type of curriculum contrary to that, I would be desecrating my faith.”

Although InnerChange Freedom Initiative stopped operating in 2016, Prison Fellowship remains one of the most well-known (and well-funded) prison ministries nationally. 

Some faith-based groups, however, feel that they embody a more inclusive ethos. Such is the case for Father David Kelly, who explained that PBMR does not aim to impose a ‘religious value set’ onto its various programs’ participants, but rather prioritizes offering the spiritual idea of being in communion with one another, regardless of one’s past. PBMR’s composition of participants spans a range of religious backgrounds including those who are agnostic or atheist. 

Father Kelly recognizes that religion isn’t always a positive association for many, so instead PBMR implements a “restorative justice philosophy without language that is perhaps religious. It’s how we navigate this space by being very inclusive, rather than exclusive.” 

Opinions on the morality of faith-based reform are divided and many groups have focused their efforts on justifying the presence of faith-based programs within the criminal justice system on the basis that they objectively work. Proving this, however, is complicated. A variety of factors make it difficult to reliably attest to the success of faith-based reform. For one, there is no standard approach, program participant, or definition of success. While it could be possible with sufficient resources to track recidivism, it is also arguably impossible to measure the “soul transformation” that many religious groups pride themselves on delivering. 

Despite the controversy surrounding the legality and morality of faith-based reform, as well as the difficulties that arise with proving its effectiveness, there are those whose lives have been touched positively by it and call for more understanding of this approach to reform. 

Father Kelly said, “I just got a letter from a kid who did retreats with us [at PBMR]. We have what we call drumming circles, which is this restorative justice practice we’ve done for years, and he’s been out of there probably ten or fifteen years or more … For a moment in that space, somebody treated him as a human being, cared about him deeply, and allowed him the space and time to interact with other young people in a more in a more real way, and just as people rather than, you know, whatever conflicts might be happening in those spaces.”

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Dylan Comerford is a freelance journalist from Chicago who is interested in urban inequality and criminal justice reform. She enjoys cartooning, collecting trinkets, and interviewing pastors in her free time.

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