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Hearts in the Wasteland: Redeeming the Moral Self in Corrections

Published onApr 01, 2013
Hearts in the Wasteland: Redeeming the Moral Self in Corrections


In this article, I examine the emotional culture of prisons as perceived by prison chaplains, a population characterized by conflicting expectations and split loyalties. Expected to enforce institutional rules and punish rule violators, chaplains are also charged with the spiritual rehabilitation of their clients. Greer (2002) argues that prisons represent rich environments for exploring emotion management, being simultaneously emotionally inciting and constraining for those individuals living and working within them. To better understand this duality, I explore chaplains’ interpersonal management of inmates’ emotions. Based on qualitative interview data, I describe some of the assumptions chaplains make about inmates’ emotions and explain how these affect chaplains’ strategies regarding interpersonal emotion management. I conclude by discussing the role of emotion management in redeeming inmates’ moral selves.


Inmates in the United States are guaranteed the right to practice a religion of their own choosing, a right protected by three constitutional safeguards (Acker et al., 1999; Solove, 1996). And religion remains widely practiced behind bars. Over a two-year period, O’Connor, Cayton, & Duncan (2007) found that 70% of the male inmate population and 96% of women attended organized religious and spiritual services. The authors estimated that this represented a total of approximately 1,400,000 hours of religious and spiritual engagement and concluded that the level of religious and spiritual involvement in prison may be much higher than the involvement of civilians in the community.

However, exercising one’s right to religious involvement is particularly complicated in the prison environment. Inside the prison walls, elements of religious life are supplied and regulated by the penal institution. Chaplains shoulder the primary responsibility for identifying and serving the various religious needs of the incarcerated population by virtue of their official prison staff positions. Virtually every prison in the United States has at least one full-time chaplain, and those states that do not employ full time chaplains rely upon contract chaplains and volunteers to provide religious services to inmates (Religious Programs, 1983; Sundt & Cullen, 2002). According to the Pew Forum study “Religion in Prison,” prison chaplains are often ordained clergy but also include lay people with religious and pastoral training (Pew Forum, 2012). The role of the prison chaplain is to meet the religious needs of inmates, but the specific activities of chaplains vary from state to state and facility to facility. Some chaplains seem overburdened by administrative duties (Pew Forum, 2012). But, on the whole, chaplains express high levels of job satisfaction (Pew Forum, 2012).

Prison chaplains must balance the religious rights of inmates with the correctional institution’s need for safety and security, a balance which must be constantly negotiated. As potential agents of social support or, alternatively, agents of social control, chaplains have the ability to profoundly shape the prison community. Traditionally, scholars have labeled prison chaplains’ work as a ministry of presence, drawing extensively upon rehabilitative and redemptive themes to guide readers’ understandings of chaplaincy (Avery, 1986; Opata, 2001). State departments similarly define chaplains as faith group representatives who provide religious guidance and counseling to all offenders without prejudice. At the same time, chaplains are admonished to use caution when dealing with inmates and to respect an institution’s need for safe and secure operation (Covert, 1995; Schilder, 1999). Chaplains’ statements about their work indicate an acceptance of this dual nature of correctional chaplaincy (Sundt & Cullen, 1998, 2002; Sundt, Dammer, & Cullen, 2002). Chaplains believe their primary role is to serve inmates, yet they also seek to control inmates in ways supportive of institutional needs.

As a group, prison chaplains seem relatively positive about the correctional system. In particular, they rate the maintenance of discipline and order in prison as either good or excellent (Pew Forum, 2012). Evaluations of rehabilitation efforts are less positive; however, many chaplains consider religion related programming to be thriving in terms of use and quality. Overwhelmingly, chaplains consider access to religious activities absolutely crucial to rehabilitation. As one chaplain wrote, “Chaplains play a key role in helping inmates transform their understanding of responsibility, choices and possibilities. Behavior only changes when hearts change” (Pew Forum, 2012).

Greer (2002) states that prisons represent rich environments for exploring emotion management. Inmates are forced to cope with a wide range of negative emotions and behaviors (Hassine, 1999; Irwin, 1985, 2005; Johnson & Toch, 1982; Sykes, 1958), but maladaptive coping may lead to widespread negative affective states among inmates, such as anxiety, anger, or depression (Kerley, Allison, & Graham, 2006; MacKenzie, 1987). Additionally, the pains of imprisonment identified by Sykes (1958) may encourage interpersonal aggression (Clear & Sumter, 2002; Irwin, 2005; Jiang & Winfree, 2006; Johnson, 1987; Kerley, Matthews, & Blanchard, 2005; Kerley, Matthews, & Schulz, 2005).

As religious figureheads, chaplains often consider themselves to be uniquely qualified to address the emotional needs of inmates. Furthermore, emotion management is one way to affect the safety and security of correctional institutions. As objects able to be modified and suppressed, emotions, like behaviors, are subject to social control. Chaplains find value in this role, claiming that the emotional life of inmates is one of the dynamics particularly well suited to the chaplaincy. Of course, chaplains also view the emotional life of a correctional institution as the most difficult part of their work.

Emotions are an important feature of human experience. The meanings of emotions are not unique to the individual (Power, 1985), but embedded within the social framework of interacting individuals. Our feelings are not purely innate or instinctual but depend largely on how we interpret situational information (Schachter & Singer, 1962) as well as cultural and historical beliefs about particular emotions of love and anger (Cancian & Gordon, 1988; Stearns, 1994), jealousy and guilt (Stearns, 1994), and sympathy (Clark, 1997).

Gordon (1989) discusses the shared and symbolic nature of emotions, calling it an emotional culture: “The patterns of meanings embodied in symbols, by which people communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward emotions” (p. 115). As such, emotional culture includes beliefs about which emotion will result from a particular situation as well as how such emotions should be interpreted, acted on, and expressed. These beliefs, by definition, vary from one emotional culture to the next and are not always shared within one large culture or one vast historical time frame. Small groups, like Irvine’s (1999) codependents, may construct emotional cultures by developing norms and vocabularies to express and reinforce their beliefs about particular emotions. Just like members of a larger culture, group members interact with each other and their environment based, in part, on their shared emotional belief system.

Irvine (1997, 1999) argues that the American emotional culture has become less tolerant of emotional expression; individuals are expected to control and regulate their emotions (Cancian & Gordon, 1988; Stearns, 1994; Stearns & Stearns, 1986). Emotions are now considered socially disruptive—perceived to build up until they veer out of control. Based on these assumptions, contemporary U.S. emotional culture tends to moderate intense emotions, stigmatize unpleasant emotions, and find non-emotional replacements for negative emotions (Irvine, 1997, 1999).

In this article, I examine the emotional culture of prisons as perceived  by prison chaplains, who have conflicting expectations and split loyalties. Expected to enforce institutional rules and punish rule violators, chaplains are also charged with the spiritual redemption of their clients. To better understand this duality, I explore chaplains’ interpersonal management of inmates’ emotions. To be clear, this research does not offer conclusions about inmates’ emotions as the inmates experience or perceive them. Rather, I describe how prison chaplains socially construct prison emotional culture. I begin with a discussion of my methodological choices in collecting data. I then offer a description of the correctional setting as an emotional culture, as it is perceived by chaplains. I highlight some of the assumptions chaplains make about inmates’ emotions, and explain how these affect chaplains’ strategies of interpersonal emotion management. I conclude by discussing the role of emotion management in redeeming inmates’ moral selves. 


My research was not designed to simply account for the events and interactions that occur within prison chaplains’ work. I sought to identify how chaplains make sense of events and how their understandings affect their behavior. I was particularly interested in chaplains’ understandings of, and beliefs about, emotions in correctional environments. According to Kvale (1996), qualitative methods empower researchers to understand the world from the subjects’ points of view, which suits my research goals very well.

I stumbled onto the topic of prison ministry after reading a vignette of a woman who sought to spiritually counsel the individual who had been convicted of murdering her entire family. Though she was ultimately denied the opportunity to establish this type of relationship with the offender, I found myself intrigued by those individuals who, in my mind, were paid to be religious. Upon closer reflection, I found that my research on prison chaplains bridged several, personal contexts. My father works as a police officer, and has done so my entire life. I grew up around criminal justice employees, watching them at work, listening to their stories, and following the cases on which they were working. At the same time, I did not grow up in a religious household, and my family never attended church or celebrated religious holidays other than those considered mainstream.

Each of these personal contexts presented a series of potential benefits and liabilities to my research endeavor. Given my research background I was conversant in many aspects of the criminal justice system. Furthermore, I had extensive contacts I drew upon for participants as well as support and guidance throughout the research process. At the same time, my lack of a strong religious identity marked me as a distinct outsider in the prison chaplain population [but see Horowitz, 1986 on the benefits of being an “outsider” in establishing rapport]. To manage this I emphasized to chaplains my sincere interest in their experience from both a personal and intellectual standpoint. In addition I emphasized my dedication to the project and chaplains [vocally] appreciated this—so much so that I won an impromptu game of “who traveled the furthest on their own dime to attend?” at one professional conference. I was also able to draw on the similarity between earning my PhD and the clinical pastoral education (CPE) certification obtained by most chaplains. Having gone through a similar process, chaplains seemed eager to help in whatever way they could and expressed [genuine, from my perspective] regret when they were too overwhelmed by work to participate.

I attended several professional chaplain conferences as one method of data collection. The American Correctional Chaplains Association annually sponsors several regional conferences and a national conference with the goal of addressing issues of concern to those in prison ministry. Volunteers, chaplains, and Department of Corrections administrators are invited to attend guest lectures and participate in discussions. At these conferences, I networked with chaplains and volunteers, conducting informal interviews and taking detailed field notes. I was also able to meet with participants before I interviewed them, increasing rapport and the productivity of my qualitative interviews (Rubin & Rubin, 1997). Conference lecture topics varied including statewide policy changes, briefings on legal decisions that affected the provision of religion in prison, and discussions of faith based practices across state facilities.

To supplement my participant observation work, I conducted qualitative interviews. Gaining access to participants was the most difficult aspect of my research project, since prison chaplains are a small population who work embedded within government-run institutions. I was fortunate to have two contacts who introduced me to several chaplains, and from there I used snowball sampling to recruit participants (Berg, 2001; Biernacki & Waldorf, 1981). I drew from several states in the Northwest and Central regions of the United States. I selected these states based on my connections and referrals from people living and working there (see Riemer, 1977 for a discussion of such opportunistic ways to gain entrée to research settings).

In total, I conducted 40 in-depth interviews with chaplains who represented diverse work backgrounds and employment statuses in different penal facilities. All participants worked in state prison facilities for adult men or women. My participants were from a variety of backgrounds, including 24 Protestant, 7 Catholic, 6 non-denominational Christian, 1 Jewish, and 2 from minority faiths, who worked in various state-level correctional facilities. Six participants were employed at minimum security facilities, 12 at medium security facilities, and 10 at maximum security facilities, while 12 participants worked at more than one facility, splitting their days between different types. Participants had a range of experiences in state correctional facilities, from nine months to 28 years in length. The majority of participants (30) worked at men’s prisons, and 6 worked with both men and women. I conducted all interviews over the telephone since participants came from diverse geographical areas. My interviews averaged two and one-half hours in length, were tape recorded, and transcribed.

I took an active interview approach as described by Holstein and Gubrium (1995) in which participant conversations were spontaneous, yet structured. I followed a loosely organized, unstructured interview guide with built-in flexibility, enabling me to modify the nature and thrust of my focus, depending on the individuals interviewed (Fontana & Frey, 1994; Leedy, 1993). I asked questions about chaplains’ perceptions of the emotional life in a prison, including both chaplains’ and inmates’ emotions. This line of questioning evolved inductively as I spoke with a wider variety of chaplains and spent more time in the field. I did not define emotions for participants, preferring instead to allow chaplains to define what emotions meant for them. During these conversations, most participants drew on non-scientific understandings of emotion. These depth interviews with participants provided the foundation for my analysis. All interview excerpts are presented using pseudonyms to maintain participant confidentiality.

Finally, I analyzed several textual sources: training manuals, state DOC guidelines, chaplain newsletters, and professional association pamphlets. Rather than taking a sample from public and restricted-access documents for analysis purposes, I searched all documents for indication of emotion themes. I used this textual analysis and participant observation to contextualize my primary data. In doing so, I was able to cross-check and reduce the possibility of systematic bias associated with only one data source, as well as to obtain a broader and more secure understanding of the setting and its members.

To begin the process of organizing and making sense of my data, I reviewed all three data sources according to themes of emotion and emotion management. I sifted through the data, pulling out significant words, phrases, and ideas and attaching to them both in vivo (Coffey & Atkinson, 1996; Corbin & Strauss, 2008) and abstract codes. I then began a process of focused coding (Lofland, Snow, Anderson, & Lofland, 2006), making connections between various codes based on the patterns and groupings that emerged from my reading of the data. Engaging in constant comparison (Charmaz, 2006; Corbin & Strauss, 2008; Glaser & Strauss, 1967), I evaluated these patterns and groupings for similarities and differences. I used this approach for all three data sources: interviews, field notes, and textual sources. With the help of several colleagues, I modified and refined my analysis to reflect new data and insights as they emerged.

Hearts in the wasteland

In the English Bible, the “wasteland” is referenced several hundred times (Leal, 2004). It is the emptiness and enormity of the wasteland which, as Hillel (2006) claims, have challenged and inspired people since the beginning of time. Lane (1998) asks whether the wasteland should be perceived in terms of discipline and punishment or as an idyllic period of openness to God. For chaplains, the prison wasteland was both of these things, simultaneously a place of punishment and redemption.1 In fact, chaplains fused these goals together—the process of punishment was incomplete without a final redeeming step. Nor could redemption be accomplished without punishment. In many ways, the coexistence of the dangers and opportunities of the wasteland mirrored the tension between letting innate emotions out and the desire to exercise emotional control—emotions are both an object of, as well as contribute to, social control.

A fierce and dangerous place

The emotional wasteland of prison is a wild, ruinous environment, full of fierce inhabitants and dangerous terrain. Though populated, the wasteland is a desolate, lonely place and the vast majority of inmates suffer a lack of significant relationships or community connections. The wasteland thus signifies the emotional abandonment and isolation of inmates. In the wasteland, people are forced to relinquish what they previously depended upon for continuity and meaning in their lives.

Descriptions of prisons often cast them as ultra-masculine and aggressive environments (Clemmer, 1958; Greer, 2002; Sykes, 1958; Zimbardo, 1973) that encourage anger, fear, and frustration—breeding grounds for what are often defined as destructive emotions (Stearns, 1994; Stearns & Stearns, 1986). The chaplains I interviewed echoed this belief; William, for example, who worked with male inmates in a mixed security facility, stated, “You can feel the negative spirit world in there [prison]. It’s a very oppressive situation.” Or as Justine, a Unitarian chaplain at a women’s mixed security level facility, stated, “The campus is a lot colder, more sterile.” When speaking of the emotional undercurrents of corrections, chaplains spoke primarily of negative, intense emotions.2 Even emotions such as love were often considered twisted by the environment, becoming lust, and thus negatively charged.

The belief that prison is an environment of negative, intense emotions draws upon several assumptions. The first is the common idea that an emotion comes upon us without reference to our wishes or desires (Rosenberg, 1990). At times, emotions are experienced so powerfully that we feel overwhelmed by them. In this view, emotion is not something the individual controls; rather emotion controls the individual and an individual’s emotional responses occur without plan or intention (Rosenberg, 1990). Inmates are assumed to be extremely susceptible to these moments of engulfing emotions (Averill, 1978), and thus perceived as emotionally volatile. This is especially problematic as a result of the movement of American emotional culture toward moderation (Irvine, 1997, 1999; Stearns, 1994; Stearns & Stearns, 1986), and engulfing emotions are often thought to be a contributing factor for individuals’ imprisonment. Chaplains’ perceptions of the strong relationship between setting and emotion must also be considered. One way individuals attempt to regulate their emotions is by seeking to control their exposure to events or circumstances which may stimulate emotions (Rosenberg, 1990). However, within prison, individuals are unable to distance themselves from sources of intense feelings. They are not allowed places of solitude in which to privately manage their feelings. Most are continuously confronted by strong emotions, their own and others. Chaplains believed this encourages a pattern of emotional contagion (Collins, 2004) among inmates whereby individuals became caught up in others’ emotions.

Though chaplains expected inmates to experience strong emotions while in prison, they did not claim that these emotions were easily expressed. Rather, inmates risk being sanctioned for emotional expression, either informally by other inmates or formally by correctional officers. Strong emotions are kept bottled up, a secondary adjustment (Goffman, 1961) to prison life.3 “We are in an environment where emotions are not allowed,” stated Kevin, a supervisory chaplain with more than 28 years of experience. Continuing, he claimed that “People just don’t let them out.” According to James, a chaplain for more than 17 years, fear was the driving force behind this behavior for inmates:

From the inmate’s point of view, you never want to be perceived as weak. Sharing emotion gives that perception. You’re a weak individual, and if you’re weak, someone’s gonna try to take advantage of you. So there’s fear of doing that.

As a result of strong norms against emotional expression, inmates were perceived by chaplains as struggling to maintain control over their emotions rather than allowing them to be released. This is considered harmful to the individual, like a wound left to fester. When asked whether it was injurious to keep emotions hidden, Peter, a new chaplain in a minimum security level facility, answered, “No question it is. In one way or another it’s gonna negatively affect us in our behaviors, in our way of relating to others, in our relationships.” Based on his 8 years of experience, Edward elaborated by explaining the ways emotional suppression might harm an individual:

One explodes like a gas stove turned on to high and the water boils immediately. There are others who hide it until it’s on the breaking point and it’s the last straw that breaks the camel’s back, it’s been building up for a long time. There are others who keep it in and have mental disturbances or illnesses as a result. Because they don’t have a positive way to let out the bad chemicals, so to speak, they keep it in.

The inability to express emotions appropriately can create pressure within the individual. As a result of this practice, according to Bob, who worked with male inmates for 12 years, “inmates die emotionally.” William agreed, based on his 1.5 years of experience, saying, “If you don’t [let emotion out], it’ll eat you alive. It’ll destroy you from the inside out.” The chaplains interviewed believed that inmates’ denial of their emotions had a negative effect upon their essential selves. Chaplains assume that pretending to be emotionless or emotionally void over time would come to fruition. Eventually, inmates entirely lose touch with this side of their selves—becoming “emotionally dead men walking,” according to Clark (Disciples of Christ, 24 years). Not only is the prison an emotional wasteland then, but so too are inmates, at their core.

Though inmates were perceived as struggling to maintain control of their emotions, chaplains believed this belied their complete lack of control over their emotions. Instead, inmates were at the mercy of them. James, who worked at a men’s prison, stated that, “people find themselves going up and down [when suppressing emotions], one minute feeling fine and the next minute feeling like they’ve been sucker punched.” Individuals could not control when, where, or at whom their emotions might come out. Inmates were untamed, trying to survive the wasteland while simultaneously becoming a part of the fierce landscape.

In keeping with the metaphor of the wasteland and drawing upon the devastating aftermath of warfare, one chaplain spoke of inmates as emotional bombs, likening prisons to emotional combat zones. This is significant in that it demonstrates the potential damage suppressed emotion could inflict—be it grief, anger, or despair. Inmates eventually encounter some threat or trigger, and their suppressed emotions may be destructively expressed. Within the closed quarters of the institution, this volatile emotional expression almost always involves the harm of multiple individuals, like shrapnel from a bomb.

Furthermore, there is a collective harm in keeping emotions bottled up. By attempting to keep a lid on one’s own emotion, every individual adds to the communal pressure building within the prison. The setting is on the verge of boiling over from suppressed emotion, leading to large scale hostilities, violence, or rioting behavior. Intense feelings can not be hidden forever. Eventually they come out, as noted by Edward, a non-denominational Christian, “Getting angry is a given.” Neither is emotion assumed to leak or ooze out, as might occur in other settings (Irvine, 1997, 1999). Instead, the accumulated pressure creates what Chris, a Protestant chaplain for more than 8 years, called “a powder keg of emotion,” in danger of spontaneously combusting at any time. Bottling up intense feelings until they burst out is not conducive to personal growth or to collective harmony. Instead, it produces disharmony and antagonism, increasing sources of intense emotion in the setting.

As staff, conscientious of safety and security issues, chaplains stated that they felt responsible to encourage some of the accumulated pressure to dissipate, as well as to prevent it from re-accumulating. Like others who deliver programs valued by prisoners, chaplains become a safety valve for the community, an appropriate outlet for ventilating emotion in the prison setting. Based on five years of experience as a mixed security level chaplain, Jim claimed, “If they’ve [inmates] got some emotional issue, the chaplain can defuse the situation.” But safety is not the only reason for defusing the emotions of inmates; the goals for rehabilitation and redemption guide chaplains as well. The wasteland is not only a fierce and dangerous place; it is also a place of hope and transformation.

A place of healing

From the perspective of prison chaplains, the journey into the wasteland is a scary and disorienting experience for inmates. However, it also has the potential to reveal or open their hearts. As Lane (1998, p. 43) wrote, “Great insights have come to some people only after they reached the point where they had nothing left.” In the wasteland, chaplains believed inmates discovered their vulnerability to their own and others’ uncontrolled emotion and questioned their purpose and place in society. In prison there is no easy place to hide from such questions. Searching for answers requires looking into one’s own heart, and inmates can either embrace or reject this opportunity for intense and meaningful transformation. According to Ward (2003, p. 36):

Everyone goes through the [wasteland], in one shape or another. If we go through this experience involuntarily, then it can be overwhelming and crushing. If, however, we accept to undergo this voluntarily, then it can be constructive and liberating.

It is the job of the chaplain to help direct an inmate’s journey through this wasteland, transforming it in to a place of healing for the individual. Steven remarked, “The chaplain is perhaps the last, best hope of putting some sanity back into a very fractured society.” This journey exploring the hidden heart of the wasteland occurs in three phases: isolation, purgation, and redemption.


While inmates are considered emotionally isolated, physically they are never afforded any solitude in which to express and examine their feelings. The first important step taken by chaplains, then, is to physically isolate inmates from others who might potentially sanction their emotional expression. Isolation creates a safe place for inmates where emotions may be ventilated semi-privately. Based on his 6 years working with men and women, Steven agreed, stating, “I see more emotion than other staff, because my office is a safe place.” Based on his more than 17 years of experience, James said, “It is the only safe place where they can express themselves emotionally.” Significantly, a safe place includes support rather than punishment or sermonizing against destructive emotions, a departure from the more prevalent formal and informal sanctions against emotional expression in prison. As Matthew, a Baptist chaplain for 17 years told male inmates, “If you need to get angry and blow smoke, or you need to cry your eyeballs out, I’ll sit with you and we’ll go through it together.” Stearns (1994) explained that the taboo against punishing intense emotions, such as anger, draws strength from the belief that punishment drives emotion deeper within the individual, making it more inaccessible. As Sarah, a Catholic chaplain with 7 years of experience, advocated, “First of all, just affirming those [emotions]. You sometimes have to assure people that that’s normal.”

Chaplains did not label inmates’ emotions as bad or good; rather it was the lack of appropriate expression that was problematic. Through overt claims of support, chaplains conveyed the normalcy of emotion. Chaplains characterized most inmates as emotionally dead, not  because they could  not feel anything, but as a result of denying these feelings day after day. For chaplains, feeling was an essential component of being a whole person (Tim, 6 years working with men and women). Samuel told male inmates at the maximum institution where he worked, that, “These emotions coming up, these are true things. Why deny that? Allow them to happen.” Matthew, a Baptist, argued more strongly, drawing on his religious expertise, “God put us together; this is how this emotional makeup of ours was created. It’s a reflection of who the creator is.” Normalizing emotion removed the stigma against expression, allowing individuals to display their feelings, albeit in the safety of the chaplain’s office.

A secondary purpose of isolation is to contain emotion as it is expressed. David, a Protestant Christian with more than 6 years of experience, explained that this “affected how well or how badly an institution runs.” Chaplains assumed that feelings were heightened and intensified by the emotions of others, there was a great likelihood that patterns of emotional contagion would be established. As a result, isolation was essential for “keep[ing] things mellow” (Kevin, 28 years of experience). To maintain stability within the prison, to keep one inmate’s emotion from triggering the intense emotions of another inmate, it became necessary for chaplains to keep inmates’ outpourings  of emotion separated. Chaplains practiced controlled emotional expression, working from inmate to inmate to release pent-up emotions in small doses without disrupting the stability of the correctional setting.


Once individuals are in a safe emotional space, physically isolated from others, they can be purged of their pent up emotions. Essentially, this is a cathartic release, without analysis or interference. Edward, who worked with male inmates in a medium security institution, claimed to “give people a chance to go through catharsis a few times before we actually begin to work on their emotions.” Rather than converting intense emotion into bland expression, chaplains allowed individuals to expend their emotional intensity in its entirety. The recognition and purging of painful and potentially disruptive emotions occurred through catharsis, the emptying of inmates. Chaplains considered this “hitting rock bottom.”

Following Goffman (1967, p. 62), the ritual of hitting rock bottom is “a perfunctory, conventionalized act through which an individual portrays his respect and regard for some object of ultimate value.” Rituals serve as focusing lenses (Klassen, 2008), representing controlled environments where chaos is acknowledged but tamed. Chaplains anticipated and even expected explosive behavior, such as weeping, shouting, or cursing, at this time. Working with male inmates for the past 10 years, Daniel claimed, “I love when they cry.” Continuing, he explained, “They see that ‘I cannot carry this anymore.   I am in pain.’ They come as they are. And they just let it go.” Under the right circumstances, there is great value to be drawn from such behaviors. As William, a chaplain in a mixed security institution, explained, “The most important thing is to get all that [pent up feeling] out of them, so that you can then focus.” Though meanings varied, for chaplains these performative behaviors (Ebersole, 2004) were demonstrative that inmates were truly opening up and not just “faking it,” and that catharsis had occurred. Such performances increased inmates’ status as authentic individuals, who were genuinely interested in changing themselves for the better.

The symbolic emptying of inmates is essential before healing can occur. For chaplains, the ritual purging of inmates’ emotions was important for two reasons. First, allowing catharsis to occur without interference kept chaplains from becoming targets of inmates’ intense emotions. It also increased the feeling of privacy. Inmates were able to vent without feeling monitored. Second, during catharsis, chaplains were able to explore the situation, albeit unobtrusively. They got a sense of what emotions inmates were feeling as well as some of their common modes of expression. While the heart is commonly tied to emotion (Christian, 2004), it is not easy to access the hearts of others. God can hear and see what occurs in inmates’ hearts, but it is difficult for chaplains to know these depths. Thus, outward demonstrations of the machinations of the heart are essential.

Emotion is a rational object once its intensity has been expunged. James, a Presbyterian chaplain, said that he told inmates, “Wait a minute. Think now. Let’s make it [an emotional outburst] logical.” He further explained, based on his 17 years of experience, that, “It’s trying to figure out all those different ways of finding out what’s creating that emotion in them and finding ways  to deal with those things.” Emotion was no longer unknowable. Together, a chaplain and inmate dissected and analyzed it. As chaplain to the male inmates in a medium security institution, Edward said, “When they tell me a story [about something that made them angry or sad], we break it down. We look at ‘Was it bad for you to be angry? How did you express your anger? Why?’ Each question leads to another and we just work through it.” Other chaplains rationalized emotion into a series of choices. David explained, “Situations come into your life every day, and emotions, where you need to make choices. How you express emotion, that’s a choice. Good choice, bad choice, indifferent choice, it is your decision.”

The next step is to answer the question posed by Steven, a Catholic chaplain for 6 years, “How do you channel all that [emotional] energy into something productive?” Having control over one’s emotions does not mean suppressing feelings. Rather, people should acknowledge how they feel but refrain from acting impulsively based on that feeling. One significant method to accomplish this is the use of a positive trigger. When individuals suppress their emotions, a trigger causes all that pent up emotion to come exploding outward. In comparison, positive triggers encourage inmates to truly control their emotions and empower them to channel emotions in more productive directions. For example, Edward recalled the following story from his 8 years working with male inmates:

This gentleman, about four years ago, he was an exploder. He would not only use the anger in the intensity of his voice, he would profane you, he would hit you. He was very destructive. Well, at one point he had gotten a letter in which his daughter said, “Daddy, I want you at my high school graduation.” He did the math and realized if he had one more misconduct he would lose any chance of getting released. So from that point on, his trigger was “graduation.” I saw him three and a half years later and he was getting ready to be released. He said, “I found ways to control the situation by controlling my [emotional] expression.”

This method typically encourages inmates to consider how their impulsive emotional reactions affect significant others and to use these contemplations as the basis for their positive triggers. However, inmates can also reflect upon the consequences to themselves of their emotional outbursts, though this is less frequently the sole basis for a positive trigger. It is likely that thinking primarily of oneself is akin to a selfish act, a behavioral tendency which chaplains would not hope to encourage in inmates.

A second, related method encourages inmates to try taking the perspective of those who provoked emotion responses. Rather than blindly reacting in their interactions with others, inmates are advised to make smart emotional decisions based on as broad an understanding of situations as is possible. Thomas, a Protestant Christian chaplain, explained an example of this strategy, which he had used extensively over the course of his 8 years: “OK, in the big scheme of things, that one moment with that one stupid officer, what does it mean? Tomorrow, are you gonna remember that officer barking at you because he’s known as a barker, he barks at everybody?” As the supervisory chaplain in a mixed security institution Mark added, “Everybody has off days. You don’t know what happened just before you [the inmate] met this person.” In contrast to the use of positive triggers, which focus on the outcomes of emotional expressions, this second strategy advocates attending to the perceived causes of such outbursts. Both strategies encourage inmates to take the perspective of other people in determining their emotional responses.

The rationalization of emotion places inmates in control, implying emotions can be tamed through specific strategies. Having worked with male inmates over the past 8 years, Edward explained that “The resident may not be able to control other people, but they control, they still have the freedom to choose how they respond.” Previously, individuals were perceived by chaplains as struggling to control their emotion through suppression, but this  strategy was considered counterproductive. Inmates’ replacement of their unencumbered emotional expressions with controlled examination was the first step in exercising control.


From the perspective of chaplains, incarceration was a blessing in disguise for many inmates. Chaplains altered their definitions of the incarceration experience, turning it into a potential opportunity. In doing so, they redefined their expectations for inmates, placing responsibility upon inmates to make the best of their situation. While acknowledging that prison experiences were potentially negative, chaplains believed it was possible to reap benefits, if inmates chose to do so. Inmates could allow their emotions free rein, or they could choose to learn to exercise control. This is an opportunity for redemption, for inmates to become better people. James, who worked with male inmates, explained that, “Some people say, ‘They deserve what they get.’ Yes,  they deserve what they get, but it doesn’t mean we can’t try  to offer some redemption in their life, offer some restoration.” Edward explained that his goal was “to bring the person back as an individual, let them feel like they are a human being.”

Assisting inmates in their emotional journeys, chaplains were not just emptying inmates of emotions and then pointing them in the direction of productive pursuits. Chaplains also infused inmates with the hope that their lives might be transformed. Hope is considered to be largely absent in the prison setting, as Coakley (2004, p. 21) noted: “No one can fail to feel the heavy weight of despair and hopelessness endemic to prison culture.” However, chaplains did not perceive it as antithetical to prison settings, and it was through hope that they expected to emotionally redeem inmates. “Hope is hard to kill entirely,” claimed Clark, after working with male inmates, and, as one state handbook (2006) explained, “You [chaplains] furnish this hope. You bring in affirmation, encouragement, and hope.” For chaplains, hopelessness was a significant obstacle to overcome—hope fueled the desire to better oneself and begin anew upon release from prison. William, a Baptist chaplain at a men’s prison, explained that, “When you’ve got hope, there’s a chance things will work out. When you don’t have hope, you’re heading down a path toward problems.” Matthew agreed, stating, “It’s my true belief that you’ve got to have something like that [hope], you need that in prison.”

Chaplains believed hope empowers inmates, providing the fertile ground upon which transformation may take root. Continuing, Matthew explained, “You [the chaplain] allow a person to reestablish themselves with their God. A lot of the inmates have found hope in that, they’ve found relief. They’ve found forgiveness, they’ve found hope.” Greer’s (2002) study of the emotional culture in a women’s prison provides evidence in support of this perception. Incarcerated women indicated that relying upon spirituality and faith was a reasonable strategy for dealing with emotional experiences in prison. They redefined past events which had previously not made sense to them as being part of God’s plan for their lives. This enabled them to feel thankful, rather than angry, for being spared some other negative consequence such as death. Women were able to find purpose in that redemption.

According to Rosenberg (1990), people use selective interpretation to produce desired emotions. For example, individuals’ failures are often blamed on external causes to deflect shame or embarrassment. These emotions might also be deflected by condemning one’s accusers as incompetent or of having questionable motives. Though it is likely that many inmates use such strategies, chaplains interpreted these as “thinking errors” (state training manual). Strategies of selective interpretation imply that someone or something besides inmates is responsible for their inappropriate emotional expressions. Inmates are perceived as having relinquished all emotional control when they rely on such strategies, and that these tactics are being used to avoid accountability. Chaplains encouraged inmates to get to the heart of such thinking errors. They did so by advocating taking responsibility for emotions and emotional responses. Edward described one case of a young male inmate who had been sent to administrative segregation for blowing up at a fellow inmate:

This young man realized he had something come into his space that he didn’t like. He tried with the skills he was developing, he thought he was doing well, but in the end he made the decision to accept the influence of the other person. It had a consequence in that he went to segregation. Even out of the consequence, you can still learn from it, you can either overcome or become a victim of that consequence. He wrote [to the chaplain], “It was my fault. What you’re teaching is right. I chose to make a decision. I could have not given in, but I chose to do that, and I’m facing the consequences.” I was very proud that he acknowledged that it was his choice and that he didn’t blame the other person.

Chaplains did not, however, encourage inmates to only think of themselves when dealing with emotional expression. Significant others, including family, past victims, correctional officers, and the general community, were strategically used by chaplains to get inmates to exercise control over their emotional expression. This was primarily done by encouraging the development of role-taking emotions (Shott, 1979). Inmates were encouraged to take the perspective of others before determining how best to emotionally express themselves in any given situation. In some cases, this meant understanding the perspective of the individuals causing the emotion. In other cases, it meant anticipating the consequences of emotional expressions for other people. Finally, it also meant understanding the emotional expression of other people, specifically those who had been victimized by offenders. Protestant chaplain Samuel offered an example of one offender who claimed, “Now I understand why all those people that I robbed were angry at me, because I made them fearful, I made them afraid.” For Samuel, who worked with male offenders, such breakthroughs were important in “restoring offenders” and returning them “as wholly as possible” back to their families and communities.

As Shott (1979) explained, the development of role-taking emotions cannot occur without taking the role of some specific or generalized other (Mead, 1934). However, these emotions can be evoked even when others are not watching since they depend only on taking the role of others who might be present or absent, real or imaginary (Shott, 1979). This is likely why the chaplains encouraged strategies which drew upon these emotions. First, inmates were isolated from the wider social community and, significantly, from the people who mattered most to them (such as their children). Second, upon release from prison it was expected that individuals would be less supervised and enjoy greater freedoms; there would be more opportunities to engage in wrongdoing and such behavior might harm innocent, law abiding others. Role-taking emotions can help curb future wrongdoing through feelings of guilt or empathy.4

Mauser (1963, p. 52) said, “It is the wilderness of the human heart which has no faith.” The hearts of incarcerated inmates, the symbolic locations of their emotions, were perceived by chaplains to be in a state of chaos. Taming the chaos of the heart, then, was a form of rehabilitation. According to Peter, “It’s part of building up or contributing to someone’s humanity. I think that’s what religious services contribute as rehabilitation.” This type of rehabilitation was also redemptive, positively affecting inmates’ souls. Edward, a nondenominational Christian chaplain, commented that “We add another dimension, which is redemption. Part of our role is to bring out that redemption.”

It is the emphasis on rationality, turning emotion into an object of dissection, which represents the connection between rehabilitation and redemption. This aligned the chaplains’ work with the criminal justice system. As one American Correctional Chaplains Association conference speaker noted, “Rehabilitation is the criminal justice goal, while redemption is the goal for religious services.” Taking responsibility for emotions, knowing when and how to appropriately express feelings, demonstrates the positive transformation of inmates and reflects both these goals. Theresa made this clear in her discussion:

We’re [chaplains] trying to bring an inmate out of this in a holistic manner, so that he comes out with spiritual growth and some ability to follow the rules of society. On the other end there’s a better person who’s more in touch with what’s going on inside themselves, has a greater ability to relate to family and to others in an empathetic manner and not objectify people.

In redefining the experiences of incarceration as potentially redemptive and rehabilitative, prison chaplains fused together various criminal justice goals. One state mission made this explicitly clear,

The mission [of the Department of Corrections] is to increase public safety by holding offenders accountable and reducing the risk of future criminal behavior. Chaplains make a significant contribution to this by helping inmates develop their spirituality and become caring, loving people.

Tim went further, explaining that during an emotional crisis, chaplains:

Have the opportunity to stimulate a change, a change in their [inmates’] way of thinking, in their attitude, in their approach, to get them to face the criminal nature of things that they’ve done and then renounce the criminal activities and situations that they’ve chosen to do.

From the perspective of prison chaplains, punishment through incarceration induced an emotional transformation, a rehabilitative and redemptive process. According to Lane (1998, p. 216),

There is an unaccountable solace that fierce landscapes offer to the soul. They heal, as well as mirror, the brokenness we find within. You experience a loss of competence, a crisis of knowing that brings you to the end of yourself.

Through the discovery, examination, and taming of the hearts in the wasteland, chaplains reconstructed inmates as more virtuous and emotionally centered people. Chaplains focused a great deal upon the hearts of inmates, but they assumed that emotion work also signified positive changes in behavior and spirit. Thus, for chaplains, the journey into the wasteland represented the healing of body (behavior), heart (emotion), and soul (spirit).


Despite overcrowding and forced proximity with others, prisons often impose emotional isolation on inmates, which some see as the most debilitating aspect of confinement, an opinion commonly shared by prison chaplains (Thomas & Zaitzow, 2006). One of the unique features of the correctional setting and punishments of incarceration is the loss of one’s privacy. As Stearns (1994) noted, middle-class American emotional culture advocates maintaining one’s cool (see also Irvine, 1997, 1999; Stearns & Stearns, 1986). However, staying cool requires not only the suppression of one’s emotions in public but also their ventilation in private. Unfortunately for inmates, there is no private place in which to do this. Chaplains saw this problem and attempted to rectify the situation by providing a safe place in which to do so. Simultaneously, though, chaplains reinforced the emotional standards of maintaining one’s cool in public while ventilating in private.

Strong institutional sanctions, informal and formal, operate to keep a lid on those inmates who act out their emotions capriciously or unpredictably. But chaplains assumed that being too composed or too calm indicated the suppression of feelings which would eventually be destructively released. This suppression occurred not only at the individual level; chaplains also perceived suppression as occurring at a community level as the group became a container for collective emotions. I refer to this concept as communal suppression. The norm against emotional expression is shared among inmates, however it is experienced singly by inmate; each struggles alone. This tendency encourages further suppression since these hardships are  not shared but seen as weaknesses which can be exploited by staff or other inmates. While Durkheim ([1912] 1965) discussed the effervescence in collective gatherings, whereby individual passions are translated into social solidarity, the struggle to control the intensity of collective feeling was perceived by chaplains as degrading community cohesion by emotionally isolating inmates. Their collective burden was therefore hidden and potentially more destructive as a result.

The extension of the ventilating (Stearns, 1994) and hydraulic (Irvine, 1997, 1999) models of emotion to include communal suppression helps to more fully develop our understanding of an American emotion culture. Throughout public discourse, we often hear about the palpable tension characterizing such situations as hostage crises, courtroom dramas, or even victim support groups. Such settings are considered to be on the brink of explosion, needing only the slightest spark to set off a collective outpouring of emotion. Examples of public demonstrations can be identified where it is assumed that this occurred: the 1992 Los Angeles riots, erupting after the Rodney King verdict, or the Battle of Seattle fought during the World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference of 1999.

Some emotional cultures, such as soldiers, police officers, or emergency room doctors and nurses, might advocate affective neutrality (Parsons, 1951) or the avoidance of problematic emotions (Copp, 1998; Goodrum & Stafford, 2003; Stenross & Kleinman, 1989) to maintain emotional stability and minimize emotional drain. According to prison chaplains, however, such detachment emotionally damaged inmates. This is similar to cases involving non-incarcerated persons, such as mothers who show no signs of affection toward their children or crime victims who remain eerily calm. The perception of an individual as emotionless can have significant consequences. For example, a cold blooded killer is not likely to receive any level of mercy from the court nor is likely to stir up sympathy among the public, and a mother who shows no affection toward her children may have her parenting skills questioned. Chaplains viewed deadening behavior as contributing to the emotional vacuum of prisons, increasing the sanctions against those who chose to express their emotions and further degrading the opportunity to form positive community ties.

As Irvine indicated (1997, 1999), a person who acts on the basis of ungoverned emotions is likely considered irrational, unpredictable, and dangerous, characterizations often ascribed to incarcerated felons. The belief that one is swept up by passion (Averill, 1980b) implies that behavior is beyond self control. However, this violated the expectations chaplains held about the emotional redemption of inmates. Instead, chaplains’ expectations demanded inmate accountability. Emotional responses were redefined as choices, and inmates were expected to account for the perspectives of other people before making these choices, potentially placing these interests above their own. In this sense, chaplains expanded inmates’ role-taking range (Schwalbe, 1991) to include a larger diversity of perspectives in their consciousness. This was perceived as fostering self-initiated emotional control, essentially inductive social control (Schwalbe, 1991, p. 291).

Ironically, emotion expressed seldom or too often may be perceived by others as harmful. Inmates are expected to manage their emotions, demonstrating them in prescribed amounts and appropriate ways. Although Hochschild’s (1979, 1983) discussion of emotional labor was restricted to paid emotional management, my analysis demonstrates that inmates are institutionally compelled to engage in this process as a result of their lack of privacy and offender status. Thus, they become alienated from their emotions and their selves. In her analysis, Greer (2002) concluded that women experienced a duality in their emotional experiences while in prison. Women very much wanted to present themselves as in control of their emotional expressiveness, yet found such control next to impossible to achieve. This implies that the negative effects of emotional labor can manifest themselves in different environments, such as prisons, even if not a paid labor situation.

These patterns of social control and the development of inductive social control, reflect the development and transformation of a moral self (Schwalbe, 1991). According to Goffman (1961, p. 168):

Each moral career, and behind this, each self, occurs within the confines of an institutional system … the self, then, can be seen as something that resides in the arrangements prevailing in a social system for its members. The self in this sense is not a property of the person to whom it is attributed, but dwells rather in the pattern of social control that is exerted in connection with the person by himself and those around him. This special kind of institutional arrangement does not so much support the self as constitute it.

The moral self (Schwalbe, 1991) is composed of an understanding of the self as containing moral characteristics, a sense of self efficacy, and the ability and motivation to engage in role taking. There must be “a propensity to consider one’s acts and their consequences from the perspectives of others” (Schwalbe, 1991, p. 288). Although the moral self may be experienced as a core, it is actually malleable and changeable. Moral selving (Allahyari, 2000, p. 4) is the work of creating oneself as a more virtuous person. In this article I have discussed chaplains’ negotiation of the moral selving of inmates. Through this process, chaplains hoped to recreate inmates as better people.

For prison chaplains, inmates’ emotional rehabilitation represented the redeemed moral self. Similar to the drafted volunteers studied by Allahyari (2000), the stigma of conviction spoiled the identities of inmates as upstanding, moral community members. Crime is one category of behavior fundamentally in conflict with the moral self. Criminals are often perceived as hurting others for gain or, at the very least, lacking concern for the potential negative effects of their behaviors on others. Convicted of such behavior, inmates, then, epitomize the discredited moral self.

When our moral selves become discredited, we may attempt to redeem them in the eyes of society. Inmates are expected to salvage their respectability and commit themselves to self betterment. The most important element in the reparation of our moral selves is the performative aspect. We must demonstrate our redeemed moral selves for the evaluation of others. In the criminal justice system, rehabilitation is achieved through the successful demonstration of a redeemed moral self.

The redeemed moral self draws heavily upon an institutional perspective of emotion (Gordon, 1989; Turner, 1976) for meaning. Individuals strive to align their feelings within the normative guidelines for quality, intensity, or duration of expression (Hochschild, 1979, 1983)  for any given situation.  A social cost may be incurred, however, if inmates’ redeemed moral selves are perceived by chaplains as forms of strategic interaction (Goffman, 1969). Inmates are overwhelmingly characterized as master manipulators. Their carefully crafted emotional displays are considered by chaplains to be emotional falsehoods. People trust others less when they know that individuals’ emotional displays may not be sincere or genuine (Rosenberg, 1990). In this sense, an impulsive orientation toward emotion is also relevant, as one which “emphasizes spontaneous, uninhibited emotion, unregulated by institutions (Gordon, 1989, p. 117).” This extends Gordon’s (1989) argument that emotions may be appropriated to the self as true or spurious clues to its reality (Franks & Gecas, 1992). While Gordon (1989) acknowledged that individuals may draw upon the institutional and impulsive orientations in assigning meaning to emotions, this case illustrates how these meanings are negotiated and assigned, by prison chaplains, to inmates’ selves.

Discussions of the discredited and redeemed moral self have implications for Braithwaite’s model of shaming (1989a, 1989b) in the criminal justice system. The outcome of degradation ceremonies (Garfinkel, 1956), inmates’ discredited moral selves likely contribute to negative sense of self and reputation in the community (Benson, 1990). This loss of status contributes to a series of emotions: first, guilt and shame, but then anger and rage (Benson, 1990). Often this anger is directed at those responsible for the loss of status (Kemper, 1981). As Benson has discussed (1990, p. 526), feelings of anger and rage may be advantageous for inmates, but have potential disadvantages for society:

Feelings of anger fuel techniques of neutralization, such as condemning the condemners, which in turn weaken the morally binding force of law. When offenders feel anger toward a society that stigmatizes them, they also may feel less respect for the legitimacy of law.

Given these discussions, chaplains’ attempts at emotionally redeeming inmates may strengthen the morally binding force of law. Emotional transformation is used to induce moral responsibility by offering inmates a “moral escape hatch” (Benson, 1990, p. 527).

According to Ulmer, Bader, and Gault (2008, p. 738):

Upon reflection, it should not be surprising that religion and the criminal justice system are connected. After all, both social institutions revolve around the concepts of social control and the maintenance of a normative community. The modern criminal justice system seeks to maintain social control via the threat of legal sanctions and punishment. Religion has the capability to impose this-worldly and otherworldly sanctions upon believers to maintain the moral order.

The twin values of retribution and rehabilitation are at the heart of the penal system (Skotnicki, 2008). People of faith have consistently shown interest in working with felons to help bring about their rehabilitation (Rothman, 1980); concepts such as rehabilitation came into existence because of the reformative efforts of people of faith in the late 18th century (Latessa & Allen, 1997; Wright, 1987). At that time rehabilitation was used to describe efforts to prepare inmates for release from prison, while also suggesting that inmates would be changed morally (Rothman, 1980). As the case of prison chaplains indicates, there may be far more overlap between rehabilitation and other correctional values, such as retribution or deterrence, than previously thought. 


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Allison M. Hicks received her Ph.D. from the University of Colorado, Boulder in 2010. Her specializations include corrections, symbolic interaction, and qualitative methodology. She currently works as Assistant Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice at Alfred University in New York.

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