Author Q&A with Michael Hallett

Michael Hallett, is the lead author of, The Angola Prison Seminary: Effects of Faith-Based Ministry on Identity Transformation, Desistance, and Rehabilitation. With his co-authors, Joshua Hays, Byron R. Johnson, Sung Joon Jang and Grant Duwe, this this book utilizes survey analysis along with life-history interviews of inmates and staff to explore the history, purpose, and functioning of the Inmate Minister program at Louisiana State Penitentiary (aka "Angola").

We caught up with Michael to discuss this exciting title, soon to be released in paperback...

Michael Hallett is a Professor in the Department of Criminology & Criminal Justice at the University of North Florida. His work has appeared in numerous books and journals including Punishment & Society, Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, Contemporary Justice Review, Critical Criminology and others. Dr. Hallett received the Outstanding Graduate Alumnus Award from his doctoral alma mater, Arizona State University, in 2007. He currently also serves as a Senior Research Fellow at Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion. Dr. Hallett has been principal investigator on grants from the US Department of Justice, Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, Jesse Ball DuPont Foundation and several other organizations.

1. Congratulations on the publication of your book, The Angola Prison Seminary, which is due to come out in paperback later this year. What do you want your audience to take away from the book?

The starting point for our narrative is the fact that Angola is today America’s largest maximum security prison and still named after a slave plantation. What we thought initially was a footnote to the project, turned out to be a central facet of our research: Angola’s history looms large at the prison.Moreover, the intense personal religious faith of long-term inmates revealed itself to be life-sustaining, personally transformative, and a source of robust counternarrative to the punitive methods and assumptions of Angola.Personal interviews conducted with both long-term staff and inmates at Angola revealed a prominent institutional memory of inmate religious worship at the prison, dating back to convict leasing and to slavery. After 3 years’ unrestricted access to Angola including all the out camps, death row, and the main prison itself, our book explores the cathartic and rehabilitative impact of Angola’s unique prison seminary.But, much to our surprise, Angola’s unique inmate-run Christian churches constitute both the change agent in terms desistance as well as a key resource for inmate wellness.Quantum identity change associated with religious conversion does exist and represents a powerful resource for critique of the indiscriminate punitivism of American corrections.

2. What makes this book stand out from its competitors?

We believe this to be the largest study of prison religion ever conducted in an American prison, comprised of several hundred hours of life-history interviews and a survey of over 2200 inmates. While the book is first and foremost an ethnographic account, it presents an overwhelming amount of empirical data as well. The book advances the discussion of identity theory and crime, especially on the topic of religious conversion. More than that, the book challenges popular understandings of inmates as incapable of self-rehabilitation.

3. Is there one piece of research included in the book which surprised you or challenged your previous understanding of the topic?

Speaking for myself personally, I was completely sceptical about faith-based prison programs as simply being an excuse to spend less on prisoners. Corrections has become overly-dependent on religious volunteerism as a source of structural charity to the point where faith programs are often the only resources available. Only by spending three years and months on-site and overnight at the prison, day-after-day, was I able to appreciate the role and value of religious faith for inmates.And I came to realize how arrogant we criminologists can sometimes be when we question or deny the “agency” of citizens who also happen to be prisoners of the state.

4. Who has influenced you the most?

This research was built entirely on the shoulders of the 30 years of research on religion and crime conducted by co-author Dr Byron Johnson.Dr Johnson has devoted his career to exploring the emancipatory power of religious faith for citizens who are victims of exclusionary class politics or who are otherwise ignored because of their race, faith, or status as juveniles. Religion more than any other social resource dramatically expands the social capital of powerless citizens.

5. What do you think are your most significant research accomplishments?

The book advances our understanding of the mechanics of “agentic moves” and the role of “identity” in the desistance process. While “agency” is certainly anchored by individual decision-making, it is also heavily corporate in the sense that self-understanding is always a social product. For example, I believe we show how prayer and worship itself can represent an “agentic move” for Angola prisoners.

6. What first attracted you to the justice system as an area of study?

I study and work in prisons and with ex-offenders because I find corrections to be our area of greatest challenge in criminal justice. I have never lost my sense of urgency about it, in 25 years—to the contrary.

7. Do you have plans for future books? What’s next in the pipeline for you?

A book about street ministry and its implications for prisoner re-entry.

Click here to view the first pages of Chapter 1.

About The Angola Prison Seminary

Drawing from three years of on-site research, this book utilizes survey analysis along with life-history interviews of inmates and staff to explore the history, purpose, and functioning of the Inmate Minister program at Louisiana State Penitentiary (aka "Angola"), America’s largest maximum-security prison. This book takes seriously attributions from inmates that faith is helpful for "surviving prison" and explores the implications of religious programming for an American corrections system in crisis, featuring high recidivism, dehumanizing violence, and often draconian punishments.

Feature in Commonweal Magazine

Read Michael's article in Commonweal Magazine, Faith at Angola Prison: After ‘Civic Death,’ a Resurrection, here.

The Angola team's recent related publications on prison seminaries

Hallett, M, B Johnson, J Hays, SJ Jang, G Duwe (Forthcoming 2019). US Prison Seminaries: Structural Charity, Religious Establishment, and Neoliberal Corrections The Prison Journal (Forthcoming March 2019).

Jang, SJ, B. Johnson, J. Hays, M. Hallett, G. Duwe (Forthcoming 2018). Religion and Misconduct in Angola Prison: Conversion, Congregational Participation, Religiosity, and Self-Identities. Justice Quarterly. DOI: 10.1080/07418825.2017.1309057