In France, as elsewhere, prison inmates claim religious affiliations and behaviors in a much larger proportion than the rest of the population. In other words, imprisonment makes a person religious. This troubling idea, formulated and researched since the 1990s, has gradually shown itself to be schematic on an empirical level. Researchers on the subject have uncovered a number of realities with abundant ramifications: “religion” designates neither a specific, homogeneous type of prisoner (a “profile”), even less a unique type of behavior. That said, how do we account for this sociological curiosity, which concerns hundreds of persons every year? My research attempts to describe the origins and implications of this social fact by analyzing the rationales of a circumstantial recourse to religion on the part of prisoners in a large French prison.
To the extent that individuals have not had recourse to religion earlier in their lives, the study attempts to describe a process: why and how a certain prisoner will look to religion during his/her imprisonment. To gain insight into the socio-genesis of a “desire” presented as “spiritual” meant realizing a sociology of the individual in a situation of imprisonment. That pointed to the need to simultaneously describe how some individuals become religious and others not, like the two sides of a single coin. Thus, beyond the two entities given as homogeneous – “prison” and “religion” – the aim of studying recourse to religion in the itineraries of prison inmates leads to some broader inquiries: the aim of the project is less to propose a sociology of religion/religiousness or of imprisonment, than to contribute to a sociology of the individual in extra-ordinary situations. Beginning with religion as a way of dealing with reality, the aim is to question the role of religion in the re-adjustment of individuals undergoing an unintelligible crisis situation that leads some to death or to psychotic delirium.