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Interview with the Director
Q: Were the spiritual motivations of the prisoners you were in contact with “pure”?
Prison demographic represents a great concentration of hustlers with multiple agendas. It’s wrapped up in their society. Within this environment I can’t say with surety that one individual has genuine spiritual beliefs and the other is faking it.
One thing for certain is that younger prisoners are more apt to change their spiritual beliefs. This is particularly true in the rural Southeast where inmate social strata is more fluid and gang structures are weaker. There is also greater multiplicity of religious sects and church leaders.
In other prison systems, like California for example, that are tightly run by the Mexican mafia, religion is wrapped up in very strong existing traditions. Prisoners don’t like change; change is dangerous, predictable has less moving parts. Here, any shift in ones belief system is uncommon.
There are many factors to consider in prison ministry. Prisoners are treated like humans over the course of an eight hour day, given better food, and told by ex-convicts that life can be better. If there is any message of hope, then prisoners relate. When faith-based organizations (with the Warden’s collusion, or at least permission) take prisoners out of their routine for a few days and put them in a retreat or tent style revival there are consequences.
Hours upon hours of singing, praying, games, skits, poster making, testimonials and encounter group like discussions produce results. These techniques exhaust the individual and result in a breakdown of mental and emotional walls. It’s brainwashing- not so different than boot camp. When prisoners receive personalized letters from children in Sunday school classes wishing them well and from total strangers, they are wracked with guilt about their own children or families, and often reach the tipping point.
For some, this temporary turmoil, or faith conversion, can destabilize, and weaken the image of the prisoner in the eyes of hardened convicts. This can make the freshly born again prisoner vulnerable to attack especially if it is coming from another convicts “ boy”.
Q: Was it a calculated decision to concentrate on Christian ministry groups?
No, covering Christian ministry groups was a consequence of filming in a southern prison. If we had filmed in a Detroit prison Faith in the Big House could have quite possibly been fully centered around Islam for example.