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  • March 21, 2019
  • Gaskill, Stephanie
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Religious Studies
  • This dissertation explores differing understandings of rehabilitation emerging from Louisiana’s Angola Prison, notorious for its history of racial oppression and, more recently, religious revival. Scholars such as Angela Davis and Khalil Gibran Muhammad have asserted that the increasing proportion of African Americans in U.S. prisons diminished public support for rehabilitation and fueled more punitive criminal justice policies. However, beginning in the mid-1990s, the height of the “tough on crime” era, Warden Burl Cain’s “moral rehabilitation” signaled increasing interest in reform among Angola’s majority-black population. Cain gained widespread acclaim for encouraging religious activity and personal morality to curb violence and hopelessness inside the prison. Critics have charged that Cain’s efforts violate the separation between church and state and the religious freedom of incarcerated people. Nevertheless, he expressed faith in the rehabilitative ideal even as racialized calls for “law and order” continued to resound. Drawing on archival and ethnographic research, this study uses moral rehabilitation as a means to examine how race shapes reform. Cain contends that faith-based rehabilitation should motivate the public to reconsider its negative perceptions of people in prison and the laws that keep them there. Yet religious tropes have been just as likely to provoke scorn as elicit sympathy for African Americans. Similarly, rehabilitation offers the possibility of social acceptance, but often emphasizes individual responsibility rather than systemic racism in the criminal justice system. Still, incarcerated African Americans have reinterpreted rehabilitation in ways that challenge traditional understandings of how this concept should function in prison environments. This dissertation examines how race reconfigures reform in four unique “sites.” Popular documentaries about Angola redefine rehabilitation as a means for the prison’s majority-black population to find purpose inside prison rather than prepare for life on the outside. Media produced by incarcerated people themselves, however, reinterpret rehabilitation as a mode of structural critique as well as individual redemption. This more expansive understanding of rehabilitation is subject to considerable limitation in Louisiana’s legislative arena, where racialized understandings of victimization re-frame rehabilitation as a cost-saving measure. In short, race—as well as religious worldviews--shape approaches to rehabilitation in fundamental ways.
Date of publication
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Rights statement
  • In Copyright
  • Lucas, Ashley
  • Leve, Lauren
  • Jackson, Jerma
  • Ariel, Yaakov
  • Wacker, Grant
  • Maffly-Kipp, Laurie F.
  • Doctor of Philosophy
Degree granting institution
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Graduate School
Graduation year
  • 2017

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