Andrew Kaufman took a long look at religion in America during the Bush presidency. His multi-story project is irreverently titled The United States of God and the Jesus Freaks. One chapter is in the Broward Correctional Institute.

Religious missions are a mainstay of many American prisons. Christian programs constitute 65% of all volunteer efforts at the prison at which I work in Washington State.

Prison religious programs are not mandatory so I steer clear of accusations of manipulation. The carceral culture may be coercive but it’s dealing in hyperbole to equate prison fellowships with exploitation. For many, the cultural relevance of Christianity and evangelism makes prison worship an understandable choice.

Reasons for the existence – in some places prevalence – of evangelism within prisons are complex and many. I will defer to Kaufman’s observations to give context to these particular photographs and the matter of fanatic religion in prisons.

Q & A

Explain your title.

During the George W. Bush presidency religion was a constant topic. My photography of, and research into, evangelism started in 2003 when the Ten Commandments statue was removed from the Alabama State Supreme court. Since that time I photographed many different elements of the Evangelical movement including a drive-in church, Holy Land Amusement Park, a hip-hop church, Christian rock, the Global Pastor Wives Network, Billy Graham’s Last Crusade and then here, at a women’s prison bible group. At that point I had come to name the project ‘The United States of God’.

During the summer of 2004, I was watching Hawaiian TV and saw a young lady being interviewed. She had just been attacked by a shark and had her arm torn off. The interviewer asked her how she was coping and said she was doing great because she was a “Jesus Freak”. The interviewer asked her if she liked being called a “Jesus Freak”. She replied “Yes” as that was how she viewed herself. She identified with the idea. At that moment the working title of my project became ‘The United States of God and the Jesus Freaks’.

Why did you extend the project to a prison?

I researched evangelical Christianity in America and made contact with the Prison Fellowship for Women. I had always known that people in prison were interested in evangelism and atoning for the sins or wrongdoings. I don’t want to speculate but it seemed that the grief of being incarcerated is eased when finding prayer.

I made a few visits with the fellowship and eventually had an opportunity to see close up what they offer. I was compelled to photograph this segment of evangelism because I wanted to see different strata of society and how each prays.

What purpose does religion serve in this particular institution?

The prison allowed them to devote time and attention to their faith. It was fascinating to see how they cope with the incarceration and [see the] time that they need to heal and move on from emotional strain.

Did any of the prisoners receive prints?

As far as I know, none of the inmates have any physical copies of the images. The work is online so they might have seen the web. As I wasn’t family, it was difficult to communicate with the inmates.