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Do religious programs in prison work? A quasi-experimental evaluation in the Israeli prison service



Despite the prevalence of religious-oriented rehabilitation programs, few studies have assessed the effects of these programs on recidivism. Prior studies have generally focused on Christian-based programs in the USA and also suffer from a range of methodological problems, making it difficult to draw sound conclusions. The current study evaluates the effects of two Jewish-based programs in Israel.


Using data provided by the Israeli Prison Services, propensity score matching was used to examine the effects of two religious-oriented rehabilitation programs on recidivism. A sub-sample of prisoners who progressed from the less intensive to the more intensive program was used as a proxy for examining the role of motivation and commitment.


Compared to non-participants, only those who participated in both programs had a significantly lower risk of recidivism. This sub-sample also had significantly lower recidivism than those who participated in only the less intensive of the two programs. Comparing participants of the two programs, those from the more intensive program had significantly more positive recidivism outcomes than those from the less intensive program.


The theoretical foundations of religious-oriented programs are that causing changes in levels of religiosity can lead to less recidivism. While prior studies have had difficulties in assessing the motivation to change of program participants, our findings provide evidence to support these theoretical underpinnings. That is, when religious-oriented programs succeed in engendering legitimate changes in levels of religiosity, they can have a positive effect on reducing recidivism.

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  1. 1.

    Jews represent about 80% of the Israeli population and about 60% of the prison population. There are also religiously designed programs for Muslim, Christian, and Druze prisoners, though these are not the focus of our study.

  2. 2.

    According to the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics, in 2010, 8% of Jews identified as Ultra-Orthodox, 12% as nationalist-religious, 13% as religious-traditionalists, and 25% as non-religious traditionalists. With regard to the Ultra-orthodox however, high birth rates have seen their numbers increase to approximately 12% as of 2017. Whilst “traditional” Jews in Israel are often compared to “Conservative” Jews in North America, they are actually quite different. Traditional Jews in Israel often come from families with a Mizrachi background and may be more religious that Conservative Jews in North America.

  3. 3.

    We have obtained much of this information from meetings and consultations with the IPS and with the Rabbinic staff in charge of the programs as part of a multi-year project being carried out in partnership with the IPS in which we have evaluated multiple rehabilitation programs (Hasisi et al. 2018).

  4. 4.

    At present, there is a total of three active teaching assistants: two in Rimonim prison, and one in Maasiyahu prison. According to position requirements, they must be replaced every two years.

  5. 5.

    This job is only available on the Torah wings (TRP), not in the Torah Study Program (TSP).

  6. 6.

    As noted in the above program description the TSP only commenced in 2006.

  7. 7.

    In analysis 1 we removed all participants who participated in the TRP only. In analysis 2 we removed all participants who participated in the TSP only. In analysis 3 we removed all participants who participated in only the TSP or only the TRP. In analysis 4 we removed the sub-sample of participants who participated in both programs. In analysis 5 we removed participants who participated only in the TRP. In analysis 6 we removed participants who participated only in the TSP.

  8. 8.

    Gender was not included as all participants were male.

  9. 9.

    For all analyses incarceration length was calculated by month with the exception of analysis four in which the TSP and TRP were compared. In this analysis, due to significant differences between the groups, the sample was divided into categories of short (approx.0–5 months), medium (approx. 5–10 months), long (approx..10–19 months), and very long (19+ months) incarceration lengths based on an aggregation of days incarcerated.

  10. 10.

    We used two proxy measures for risk level, 1) A violent offender listing according to the assessment of the courts, 2) A violent offender listing according to the assessment of the Israel Prison Service. The first measure is generally based on an offender’s behavior pertaining the offense itself, or their in-court behavior, whereas the second measure generally reflects their behavior following incarceration as assessed by the IPS.

  11. 11.

    The file used in the present study did not contain recidivism data from the advanced years of monitoring among prisoners released in the advanced years, because it did not cover this period of time. Thus, each year, the only prisoners monitored were those about whom we had recidivism data, and so, in effect, the groups of prisoners did get smaller over the years. Under these circumstances, with each year of monitoring reflecting the recidivism measured among a different group, a decline in recidivism may be seen as time went by. The reduction in number of participants in both study and comparison groups throughout the monitoring period also affects the statistical power, and the ability to achieve statistical significance during the advanced monitoring years.


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We would like to thank Dror Walk, Tomer Carmel and Katerine Ben Zvi, from the Research Unit at the IPS for their help in creating data and developing the study more generally.


This study was supported by a grant from the Israel Prison Service to the Institute of Criminology, The Faculty of Law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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Correspondence to Noam Haviv.

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Haviv, N., Weisburd, D., Hasisi, B. et al. Do religious programs in prison work? A quasi-experimental evaluation in the Israeli prison service. J Exp Criminol (2019).

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  • Religious rehabilitation program
  • Prison
  • Recidivism
  • Propensity score matching