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Keeping Faith: Faith Talk by and for Incarcerated Youth

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In the context of talk about changing their lives, incarcerated young men and their supervisors talk about faith as a force for positive change. Given the historical and contemporary significance of religion as a locus of organizing and collective struggle, I argue that faith represents a potential asset in efforts to assist incarcerated young offenders pursue education, legal work, and sobriety or diminished substance (ab-)use. I draw on growing consensus among scholars of youth development that religious affiliation, and spirituality more generally, are protective and can promote other positive developmental outcomes. I also draw on discursive studies of substance abuse treatment and religious conversion to highlight the ways in which faith talk by and for youth offers avenues for institutionally sanctioned agency and recognized genres of biographical reconstruction. I conclude by suggesting that critically exploring matters of faith and belief in public institutions might usefully inform curricular and programmatic interventions to assist young people avoid recidivism, school failure and substance abuse, and perhaps, find or imagine satisfying and meaningful adult lives.

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  1. 1.

    In what follows, “faith” will generally (but not exclusively) refer to belief in transcendence rooted in religion or spirituality. I define religion, after Durkheim (2001, p. 46), as combining notions of the sacred with unifying doctrine that defines a moral community: as “a [] system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things […] that unite its adherents in a single moral community.” I define spirituality as belief or practice that seeks self-transcendence but is not necessarily theistic, nor doctrinaire, nor unified. In contrast to religion, spirituality can be more personal and/or eclectic [See e.g., Oman et al. (2008, p. 82)].

  2. 2.

    To protect confidentiality, all participants in this research are referred to by pseudonyms, usually self-chosen ones. For the same reason, geographic locations are referred to broadly (e.g., “Northern California”) or by fictional names (e.g., “San Angelo County”).

  3. 3.

    Valdés writes, “educación […] cannot be translated completely using the English word education. What English speakers call education is school or book learning. What Spanish speakers call ‘educación’ has a much broader meaning and includes both manner and moral values” (Valdés 1996, p. 125, see also Villenas and Moreno 2001).

  4. 4.

    Johnson et al. (2000, p. 32) note that “the influence of religion on delinquency has been debated for more than 30 years and yet there remains a lack of consensus about the nature of this relationship.”

  5. 5.

    At least initially, these ways of being stood in some contrast to my own. I came to Uhuru as an educator. For me, the implied and frequently stated rationale for getting an education was to achieve choices in life and, ideally, avenues to upward economic mobility. Any “gospel” I subscribed to was one of hard work and deferred gratification, with (muted) suggestions that learning could be inherently rewarding. I spoke explicitly in my classes of working hard, doing well in school and reaping material rewards. By contrast, among many Uhuru leaders, education was something like what Bell Hooks (1994) calls “the practice of freedom,” a simultaneous struggle for meaning, self-actualization, and social uplift. Struggles to educate oneself, to overcome, and to achieve were individual struggles on behalf of larger groups. They were acts of faith and hope—that educating oneself and striving for personal excellence could be ways of improving one’s own life and, simultaneously, of “giving back” to one’s family, community, and to all those who helped you succeed and on whose shoulders you stood. Uhuru leaders focused collective attention on “higher learning” (the club’s motto) and higher purposes for striving and struggling to overcome.

  6. 6.

    “Felony Murder” is a charge reserved for someone present at a murder who did not actively intervene to stop it.

  7. 7.

    Macedonia Vizuet [pseud.], interview #2, by author, tape recording, author’s residence, 17 January 2000.

  8. 8.

    At the same time, it is crucial to note how Macé’s faith-inflected talk could also mark him as different from and outside of networks of power and prestige. That is, to talk about religious faith in general or specifically to talk about Born Again or fundamentalist Christianity could mark Macé as a stranger or outsider in many educated middle class and elite settings, for example, corporate board rooms, scientific teams, university faculty, among wealthy elites, etc. I am indebted to Robert Garot for this important insight.

  9. 9.

    “JH” & “PS” [pseud.], speech to Tuesday Night Uhuru, tape recording, San Angelo County Juvenile Hall, 9 June, 1998.

  10. 10.

    In the previous week’s Uhuru meeting and in an activity on the unit, Steve and some other Uhuru leaders had urged young people to consider the effects of looking up to gangsters, criminals, and rap stars who glorified the “street life” as role models. As a youth and an athlete, Steve spoke of looking up to older athletes in the neighborhood and of looking up to his parents as role models. Though the discussion here of “idolization” is potentially loaded with religious overtones and could be understood to tie into coercive absolutist (Christian) discourse about idolatry and the danger of worshipping “false idols,” I did not hear Steve’s exhortations in this way. Rather, I heard Steve as picking up on a common Uhuru theme—urging young people to be cautious about who they chose to spend time with and who they chose to look up to.

  11. 11.

    Macedonia Vizuet [pseud.], speech to Tuesday Night Uhuru, tape recording, San Angelo County Juvenile Hall, 16 November 1999.

  12. 12.

    Also interesting is the way this exchange lays out an emergent typology of “doing something” in life, in essence, a highly restricted pathway to achieving morally sanctioned meaning and purpose in life after juvenile detention. As Philip and I frame it here (in terms that ignore ranges of human capacity and continents of possibility), “doing something” with one’s life demands apparently hard and potentially unrewarding work (is Philip’s reference to “being a janitor” a cultural image for a low-end job) and higher education (going to a junior college and “getting some knowledge in my head”). Such a framing of possibility beyond juvenile detention is perhaps expected and not surprising. But Philip takes the exchange in considerably more interesting directions. Following a mutual acknowledgement that even what we have framed as a threadbare future is not guaranteed (“’Cause just like you say, you don’t know exactly how things are going to turn out”), Philip activates a discourse of faith and, in a sense, revives possibility, purpose, and meaning by saying “And even if it don’t happen, you know… God got something out there for me.”

  13. 13.

    William Puanoa [pseud.], letter to author, from California Youth Authority facility, dated 21 February 1999.

  14. 14.

    William Puanoa [pseud.], letter to author, from California Youth Authority facility, 23 March 1999.


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I gratefully acknowledge assistance and insights from: Ronald Chennault, William Damon, Martha Gardner, Robert Garot, Amira Proweller, Chris Worthman, Carol Wren and anonymous reviewers from The Urban Review. Tremendous guidance and early encouragement came from Milbrey McLaughlin, Ray McDermott, and Larry Cuban. You are wonderful colleagues, astute scholars, and good friends. All errors of omission or commission are solely my responsibility and despite the best efforts of these individuals.

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Correspondence to Joby Gardner.

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Gardner, J. Keeping Faith: Faith Talk by and for Incarcerated Youth. Urban Rev 43, 22–42 (2011).

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  • Incarcerated youth
  • Faith
  • Delinquency
  • Narrative
  • Agency