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Man in prison lifts arms up to sky with stone wall behind.

Spirituality in High-Security Prisons


The series ‘Religion in Prison’, by photographer Serge J-F Levy, captures the convicts and their religious experiences in high-security prisons.

When a criminal is accused and convicted to prison, we as a country, as a society, assume that he will experience some sort of rehabilitation. However, in most cases the reality is far from that. A prisoner will often encounter more violence and darkness behind closed walls. Therefore many convicts try to find their own rehabilitation or reconnection through spirituality as a metaphor for freedom. The photographer Serge J-F. Levy found a way into this world of mystical searches in the high-security prisons of the United States, he portrayed these personal rehabs in the series Religion in Prison. Levy says:

Without having any personal predisposition to any religious activity but having a fascination with how people can work on their spirituality and healing their souls, I was interested in how this was happening in an environment that seemed to be everything but conducive to that.

His project explores how religion has multifaceted functions: convicts adopt it as part of their identity and as an opportunity to develop their social circle; it becomes part of the art they produce and accompanies them through the darker moments in solitary confinement making sense of space and time.

Men praying in prison

Levy devoted two years of his life to this project, which led him to six maximum security prisons in different states, which included Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Louisiana. Being allowed into the prisons was not an easy task, but he was eventually granted the necessary permissions because he was not looking for “the cracks in the toilet bowl and poor inmate conditions,” instead he was looking at something that could possibly make a prison and its staff look better.

His photographs depict a wide range of religions and practices that include Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism and Wicca. The religious experiences that the series depicts take place in the dark and hostile environments of prisons, which endows them with an aura that unveils the convicts most solemn side.

There’s this sincere desire on the part of many inmates to try to understand the state of their soul,” Levy said. “They’re trying to understand their predicament, and I think that spirituality in prison not so infrequently dovetails with a form of analysis or therapy. I think there’s a sense of introspection and evaluation of one’s life that happens within these religious environments, especially in one-on-ones with the chaplains. I didn’t expect to see that, and it’s fascinating."

His series is extremely efficient in the sense that it shows the urgent side of spirituality and the search for the bond that ties us to something greater than the mere individual. When there is nothing else left, other than metaphysical redemption because the body is trapped, all sorts of powerful, fundamental spiritual events take place.

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