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Prisoners who find God in jail are no less likely to reoffend than atheists, a study has found.

Religion was found to help prisoners who rediscovered it in jail to come to terms with their crimes and try to turn their lives around, but once released there was no difference in their reoffending rates when compared with non-religious inmates.

Other offenders with “declining” faith were also likely to find prison increasingly depressing and used religion only to “fill time” while inside.

The research, based on detailed analysis of 174 inmates, challenges claims that religion can act as a catalyst for rehabilitation.

Iman Said, one of the authors at Pennsylvania State University, said other factors such as retraining, having a job and safe accommodation were more significant in reducing reoffending.

“Numerous barriers, including finding and maintaining jobs, securing housing, renewing ties with family and others, prevent religion from effectively supporting the reentry process for many incarcerated men, which can encourage relapse,” said Mr Said.

“Our findings call into question prison-based religious programmes as the sole way to reduce recidivism and boost post-release success and suggest a lack of a relationship between religious beliefs and recidivism.”

An aspirational future self

The 174 men in the study attended a substance-use disorder programme in prison and were tracked through their time in jail and once released.

Their religiosity was measured through interviews including questions about how many times they participated in religious activities before, during, and after prison. The men had regular access to faith-based services and a full-time chaplain.

The study found that offenders with stable or increasing religious beliefs used religion to reconcile their past mistakes and create an aspirational future self.

Many of the interviewees told the researchers they practised religion independently from organised programmes, with some spending time reading the Bible or engaging in self-reflection.

Despite the apparent importance of religion in jail, it proved “superfluous when overcoming barriers to successful reentry [to society] and recovery,” said the researchers.

Contrary to expectations, the men who reported having stable or increasing religious beliefs did not show better reentry outcomes than individuals who reported decreasing religious beliefs.

Many men said that they didn’t have time to attend religious services or take part in self-reflection, and many returned to substance use.

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