“Work on the Self” in a Total Institution

Faith in Imprisonment concludes with two chapters drawn from my ethnographic research in Wakulla Correctional Institution, a 3,600-bed public prison south of Tallahassee. These chapters amplify the perspectives of individual inmates and ethnographically highlight the specific ways religion shapes the experience of being incarcerated. They contribute to the literature about prisons and analogous “total institutions” by disrupting the paradigms of surveillance and power/knowledge that characterize most of the salient scholarship.

Breaking with research that focuses chiefly on how people are molded by institutional forces, these chapters investigate how prisoners invoke religious discourses and practices to “work on themselves.” I show how, for many, religion is an avenue of ethical self-formation through which they realize, or at least experience, personal transformation as they labor to make themselves better. At the same time, however, the focus on rehabilitation and redemption as an individual transformation makes it difficult for prisoners to discuss structural racism. Religious redemption narratively affirms the social legitimacy of prisons (or society’s “faith” in them) by retroactively endowing them with a transformative power.