Religion in United States prisons

Religion in United States prisons

context=September 2007
unbalanced=August 2007

Inmates incarcerated in the United States penal system practice a variety of religions. Their basic constitutional right to worship has been reinforced by decades of court decisions and more recently by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. Yet, several of these court rulings have also set limitations on these rights when prisoner demands are seen to impeded prison safety and function.

Legal status

Relevant court cases

*1964 - Cooper v. Pate
*1972 - Cruz v. Beto
*1986 - Dettmer v. Landon
*1987 - Turner v. Safley
*1987 - O'Lone v. Estate of Shabazz
*1997 - City of Boerne v. Flores
*2005 - Cutter v. Wilkinson

Organizations and programs

While inmates often worship as individuals they also frequently do so within the structure provided by the programs of religious groups and denominations tending to the incarcerated. Nearly all correctional facilities provide support for at least the Abrahamic religions: Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Chaplains, volunteers and other representatives of these groups may organize religious services as often as daily in large prisons, while also providing pastoral care to inmates and staff. [Dammer, Harry R. (2006) "Religion in prison." In "Encyclopedia of American Prisons", edited by Marylin D. McShane and Frank P. Williams III. New York: Garland Publishing. pg. 400]

Contemplative programs

Some U.S. prisons offer contemplative programs for inmates and staff, which may include meditation, yoga or contemplative prayer. While these programs are sometimes secular they are also frequently sponsored by religious organizations [ [ World Community of Christian Meditation prison Ministry] ] [ [ Fr. Thomas Keating's Centering Prayer program at Folsom State Prison] ] and interfaith groups. Such programs have an established history. In the 19th century Quaker ideas, [Adamson, Christopher (2001) "Evangelical Quakerism and the Early American Penitentiary Revisited: The Contributions of Thomas Eddy, Robers Vaux, John Griscom, Stephen Grellet, Elisha Bates, and Isaac Hopper." "Quaker History." 90(2):35-58.] [Dumm, Thomas L. (1985) "Friendly Persuasion: Quakers, Liberal Toleration, and the Birth of the Prison." "Political Theory" 13(3):387-407] were co-opted by Pennsylvania prisons which had inmates meditate upon their crimes as a key component of rehabilitation. [Sutherland, Edwin H. and Cressey, Donald Ray and Luckenbill, David F. (1992) "Principles of Criminology" pp.502-503] [Knapp, Samuel Lorenzo (1834) "The Life of Thomas Eddy" pp.71-72 [ direct page view] ] In the 1970s organizations such as the Prison-Ashram Project [ New York Times review of The Dhamma Brothers by Whitney Joiner] ] and SYDA Foundation began programs to offer meditation or yoga instruction to inmates. [Brooks, Douglas Renfrew (2000) "Meditation Revolution: A History and Theology of the Siddha Yoga Lineage" pp.109, 154] [ 2001 conference description detailing history] ] In subsequent years more religious groups have begun meditation programs, such as the Prison Dharma Network in 1989. Modern meditation programs are thought to help inmates deal with the stress of confinement. [Bartollas, Clemens (1985) "Correctional Treatment: Theory and Practice" p.141] One recent study has suggested that such programs help to reduce a host of undesirable and unhealthy behaviors, like drug use, violence and risk taking. [ Murty, Komanduri and Owens, Angela and Vyas, Ashwin (2004) "Voices from Prison: An Ethnographic Study of Black Male Prisoners" p.237] Not all prisons allow contemplative programs, leading some to use religious freedom provisions as a way to gain access to the programs.Queen, Christopher S. (2000) "Engaged Buddhism in the West" pp.355-357] For instance, court actions recognizing Zen Buddhism as an "acceptable religion" have secured meditation programs in New York prisons.

Relevant organizations

* Prison Fellowship International
* International Network of Prison Ministries



In addition to immigration, the state, federal and local prisons of the United States contribute to the growth of Islam in the country. According to the then Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Harley G. Lappin, not counting members of the Nation of Islam, there were 9,600 Muslim inmates in federal prisons in 2003. [ United State Senate, Committee on the Judiciary, Testimony of Mr. Harly G. Lappin, Director, Federal Bureau of Prisons, October 14, 2003 [] ] However, J. Michael Waller claims that roughly 80% of the prisoners who "find faith" while in prison convert to Islam and that these converts made up 17-20% (around 350,000) of the total (state and federal) prison population, in 2003. [ United States Senate, Committee on the Judiciary, Testimony of Dr. Michael Waller, October 12, 2003 [] ] According to Chuck Colson, the head of Christian-based Prison Fellowship Ministries one out of every six inmates is an adherent to Islam, and the faith especially appeals to minorities. [CNS News Service, November 14, 2002 [] ]


There are a variety of Neopagan practitioners in the prison population many of whom are served by a variety of prison outreach programs. Mattias Gardell indicates that "a pagan revival among the white prison population, including the conversion of whole prison gangs to the ancestral religion.". [Gardell (2003), p. 217] In 2001 there were prison groups associated with Wotansvolk in all states of the nation supporting more than 5000 prisoners.Fact|date=May 2008 The women's group Sigrdrifa, which has chapters in the United States and Canada, also runs a "Odinism in Prison" project, while the Odinic Rite and the Ásatrú Alliance have prisoner outreach programs as well.Fact|date=May 2008

The ability of Neopagans to practice their religion in U.S. prisons has been shaped by the outcome of two significant court cases. In 1985, Virginia prisoner Herbert Daniel Dettmer sued Robert Landon, the Director of the Virginia Department of Corrections, in federal court to get access to objects he claimed were necessary for his Wiccan religious practice. The district court for the Eastern District of Virginia decided in Dettmer's favor, although on appeal, in Dettmer v. Landon the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that while Wicca was a religion, it was not a violation of the First Amendment to keep a religious practitioner from accessing ritual objects. In 2005 Cutter v. Wilkinson came down on the side of at least three Neopagan prison inmates protesting the denial of access to ceremonial items and opportunities for group worship. Yet in their decision the court reinforced the notion that "should inmate requests for religious accommodations become excessive, impose unjustified burdens on other institutionalized persons, or jeopardize an institution’s effective functioning, the facility would be free to resist the imposition." [ [ Cutter v. Wilkinson] ]


Radicalization of inmates

According to J. Michael Waller radical Islamist groups, mostly sponsored by Saudi Wahhabi organizations linked to terror financing activities, "dominate Muslim prison recruitment in the U.S." [ United State Senate, Committee on the Judiciary, Testimony of Dr. Michael Waller, October 12, 2003 [] ] However the FBI reports that prison radicalization appears to be the work of domestic groups "with few or no direct foreign connections." [ [ Federal Bureau of Investigation - Congressional Testimony ] ] Paul E. Rogers, President of the American Correctional Chaplains Association, adds that reports of prison infiltration by religious terrorist organizations "have been blown way out of proportion.” [ United State Senate, Committee on the Judiciary, Testimony of Mr. Paul Rogers, President of the American Correctional Chaplains Association, October 12, 2003 [] ] Muslim Chaplains and prison staff interviewed by the Office of the Inspector General of the United States Department of Justice also confirmed that other inmates, and not outside volunteers, are the main cause of inmate radicalization when it does occur. These chaplains expressed concern for prison facilities without adequate Islamic resources since in those circumstances religious services are left in the hands of inmates, [ [ Special Report: A Review of the Federal Bureau of Prisons' Selection of Muslim Religious Services Providers - Full Report ] ] a concern shared by a special report by the George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute and the University of Virginia Critical Incidence Analysis Group on prison radicalization. [ [ "Out of the Shadows: Getting Ahead of Prisoner Radicalization."] A special report by the George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute and the University of Virginia Critical Incidence Analysis Group. pg. iv]

ee also

*Prison religion
*Religion in the United States
*Prisons in the United States


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