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Study: Religion Helps Women Behind Bars


More than 115,000 women are incarcerated in the United States. Approximately 5,000 are serving life sentences, and close to 30 per cent have no possibility of parole.

So how do aging prisoners cope behind bars?

New research led by Ronald Aday, a professor of sociology and anthropology at Middle Tennessee State University (Murfreesboro, Tenn.), has examined the role of religion in the lives of 21 older women in one southern state.

Fifteen of the women were white and six black. Study participants ranged in age from 51 to 78. They were all serving life sentences for murder.

Most of the inmates maintained contact with their families, according to the study. However, only 40 per cent received regular visits, and over 25 per cent received no visits from the outside.


Aday and his colleagues met with the women in a prison classroom. They talked to them about their experience and the role that religion played in their daily life.

Inmates completed a survey, which showed they participated in a range of formal and informal religious activities including:

  • prayer groups
  • Bible study
  • religious services
  • choir, and
  • retreats.

Religion in prison

The findings revealed religion was a powerful source of life meaning for these women.

It also nourished their sense of hope, helping them to thrive in a harsh prison environment. As one participant put it, "My religion has been the only way I have been able to survive the 37 years I have been incarcerated."

Specifically, religious practice allowed older inmates to:

  • create support networks
  • cope with declining health
  • deal with loss, and
  • find hope.

The results were published online in the Journal of Women & Aging on
June 14, 2014.

Support networks

The study found that prison chaplains, especially older chaplains, were a major source of support for inmates. These religious leaders counseled inmates and offered empathy without being judgmental.

As one woman remarked, "The older prison chaplains have been so dedicated to us, sharing much wisdom and insight."

Participants also mentioned the impact of church volunteers on their spiritual growth. But one inmate shared how changes in prison policy over the past two decades had restricted access to volunteers: "They, for example, are no longer allowed to write to us, send cards, . . . hold our hands, or even pray with us during services."

Declining health

Inmates reported that their faith helped them cope with health concerns, such as chronic illness and visual impairment.

Members of their church group also provided comfort and support.

Said one participant: "Since I found out I have breast cancer and have to go for chemotherapy, radiation and treatment every day, other inmates in my Bible group have been very concerned and responsive."

She added, "Even when I had to be transferred to another institution, and placed in the hospital, I continued to receive support through cards, phone calls."

Coping with loss

Several of the inmates claimed religious retreats offered helpful opportunities to discuss a wide range of topics. These opportunities acted as buffer to help women to stave off depression, especially in times of loss.

As one woman explained:

When I receive news of the loss of a loved one, I cannot do the normal things that free world citizens do to honor the deceased while letting go too. We cannot have farewell parties or funeral services, make connections with others, or share tears, laughter or memories of the loved one. Typically, we receive no condolences even from administration. Since we must grieve alone, many of us turn to religion to fill a critical void.

Inmates also mourned the loss of "sisters" within the prison. "I have lost several dear friends in here," one woman remarked. "While I miss the times we have spent sharing, I feel so happy that they have reached their goals of being with the Lord."

Finding hope

According to the study, religion played a key role in helping aging lifers cope with their prison experience.

Engaging in religious practices encouraged inmates to reflect on their mistakes and engage in self-forgiveness. And importantly, these opportunities helped women deal with their deep feelings of guilt.

"My religious beliefs have taught me to focus on the good things in my life rather than the bad," one inmate said.

Another remarked, "For well over 30 years, religion has been what has sustained me and kept me from feeling trapped in negative prison life."