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Moral and Religious Influences - Practicing Religion In Prison

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Since a series of court decisions in the 1960s and 1970s, the constitutional right of prisoners to practice religion has been widely recognized. Congress passed a federal law based on the rulings, recognizing prisoner religious rights known as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000. The most common right exercised is the right to attend religious services in various denominations. Not only are Christian religions represented, but prisoners have the right to worship Islam, Buddhism, and other recognized religions.

Some practices not considered part of an established organized religion are not allowed. Inmates can also observe special diets and possess religious items, such as prayer beads, feathers, medicine pouches, and prayer rugs, as long as they do not interfere with prison operations.

Which faith groups are active in a prison depend on the specific needs of its inmate population. Larger prisons often offer services in many different denominations on a daily basis. Smaller facilities may offer only nondenominational (not belonging to a particular religion) services held on Sundays, with smaller activities available a couple times a week.

The four major faith groups are Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, and Jewish. Other recognized faith groups include Hinduism, Mormonism, Native American religions, Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Scientists, and more recently witchcraft and Satan worshiping. Besides regular services, some prisons host special programs to inspire inmates to become religious. In the supermax (the highest security) prisons where inmates are isolated from other prisoners, the ministry is individualized like in earlier times.

In 2003 Lawtey Correctional Institution in Lawtey, Florida, was transformed from a regular prison to one welcoming inmates who seek a religious life. (AP/Wide World Photos)


Inmates seek religion in prison for various reasons. Some hope to gain a sense of direction and purpose in their lives, peace of mind, a safe haven from the rest of the prison population, to meet other inmates with similar interests, have access to prison resources or special privileges, or to influence parole considerations. Because of the last reason, prisoners involved in religious activities are frequently met with skepticism or distrust from prison staff and other inmates.

Indeed some inmates have used the religious activities as an opportunity to pass contraband (forbidden items) in prison, such as weapons, foods, or drugs. Many skeptics believe some inmates are simply looking for an early parole. Instances where former inmates who were active in religious activities while in prison commit further offenses after release add further support to these feelings. However studies have shown that the more active an inmate is in religion in prison, the less likely he will be a repeat offender after release.


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