When local filmmaker Jonathan Schwartz was shooting his 2004 documentary “Turned Out: Sexual Assault Behind Bars” about prison rape, he noticed that those involved in the evangelical programs were much less likely than other groups to be victimized or to be involved in illicit or violent activity. Though an atheist with a Jewish upbringing and a background in left-leaning politics, Schwartz was intrigued by the seeming effectiveness of the faith-based approach in reforming inmates, and decided to investigate.
He discussed the resultant film, “Faith in the Big House,” by phone from his studio in East Cambridge.
Q. How did you get the project off the ground?
A. One of the funders was Ted Poitras, a conservative Southern Anglican and also a member of Bridges of America, a faith-based organization for helping prisoners. And yes he’s the uncle of Laura Poitras [director of “Citizenfour”], though he’s somewhat to the right of Attila the Hun politically. So I told him that we have a different perspective on these matters and that there could be no editorial strings attached. And there weren’t.
Q. What kind of research did you do?
A. My first experience was going through several weeks of the actual prison ministry training sessions with an organization called Kairos, which is one of the biggest and is very well organized. It was an interesting experience for me. The last time I was in a circle singing folk songs was during the civil rights movement with my family. So, despite the fact I don’t have a shred of religion in me, to see these convicts open up was a pretty moving experience.
Q. Would you be able to convert me to evangelistic Christianity?
A. Now I could. I know the whole playbook.
Q. Why are these religious organizations taking over from the secular programs that rehabilitate prisoners?
A. It’s the same thing that’s happening with many public and state services. Evangelical ministries are taking over education, drug counseling, and other programs, and if they can offer these services for free and you’ve got these cash-strapped state prisons that are trying not to be privatized — it’s a form of cost saving.
Q. Should we be concerned?
A. My politics may be atheistic, and I don’t like the manipulation that goes on, but I’ve done enough work in prison to be glad to see something that keeps guys from killing each other. Even if it is only a temporary palliative.
Q. Do you think that these programs may displace others that are more effective?
A. A friend of mine, James Gilligan, ran a college program in a prison right here in Concord. The recidivism rate from graduates of his college equivalency program was zero. It’s all about education. You can have guys reading the Bible 12 hours a day, but that doesn’t necessarily get them a job.
Interview was edited and condensed. “Faith in the Big House” will air on WGBH World on Wednesday at 7 p.m. and on Thursday at 8 a.m., 2 p.m., and midnight. For more information go to www.wgbh.org/programs/Faith-in-the-Big-House-3162.