Religious Freedom: Faith & Worship Access in Prison

Practicing your faith behind bars

Freedom of religious expression within United States prisons could hardly be more crucial as the number of people locked behind bars swells. Prison and jail policies now affect the ability of over 2 million Americans to practice their faith. When officials stifle legitimate religious activities, they not only trample on Constitutional rights but also hinder access to the moral compass that can guide offenders out of a criminal lifestyle.

 

Hindrances to freedom of religion in prison

Inmates’ religious freedom is highly vulnerable to abuse, however. Censoring prison chapel library materials threatens prisoners’ access to books that are foundational to their faith. Refusing to provide prison chaplains that reflect inmates’ religious convictions impedes their ability to grow in their convictions and strengthen their moral resolve. When budgets become tight, all too often religious programs in prisons are one of the first things to go. Laws that restrict inmates’ ability to file grievances when their religious liberties are violate are also troublesome. Cutting off inmates’ access to their faith is incredibly foolish because of religion’s power to transform lives. Prison Fellowship’s years of ministry to prisoners in both the general prison population and in its InnerChange Freedom Initiative units demonstrates this truth.

 

Protecting religious freedom

Justice Fellowship believes that every prisoner’s right to religious expression should be protected. We should certainly not promote inflammatory and dangerous religious beliefs. But, we believe that prisoners’ rights to practice their faith can flourish while maintaining prison safety and security. To this end, Justice Fellowship worked hard to help pass the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, which prohibits the government from substantially hindering inmates’ religious expression. Justice Fellowship also strove to end the Bureau of Prisons’ Prison Chapel Library Project, which had removed many religious materials from chapel libraries. Through highlighting religion’s unmistakable influence on prisoners’ lives and through advocating in the public square for inmates’ religious freedom, Justice Fellowship hopes to equip offenders with the power to make good choices - choices that benefit not only themselves but also our entire communities.

 

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