Religion in Prison: A Constitutional Obligation

David Karas

When it comes to inmates practicing their faith behind bars, they have the law on their side.

 “We’re constitutionally obligated to provide them with faith-based programs,” said Alfred Kandell, prison administrator at the Albert C. Wagner Youth Correctional Facility, Bordentown.

While similar legislation was in place since the early 1990’s, Congress took steps in 2000 to ensure that inmates are afforded the opportunity to worship whichever faith they choose. The “Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act” prohibits any burdens placed on inmates or churches seeking to provide faith services to a prison population.

According to Kandell, as long as it is a recognized religion, any inmate has the right to practice it behind bars. And that means that the institution must provide the avenues through which they can pursue faith enrichment activities.

However, this status came only after a series of struggles that took place across the nation, when wardens and Corrections officials prohibited inmates from participating in particular religious practices that posed a potential security threat.

Among the most publicized of these struggles surrounded the allowance of a Native American Sweat Lodge for inmates, a practice that was often denied to prison populations due to its construction. During ceremonies, the small hut-like structure, often constructed of sticks, is draped with blankets as worshippers huddle inside. This prevents anyone on the outside, particularly guards, to monitor activity on the inside.

Native American inmates across the country filed charges against corrections officials, citing the Congressional mandate and a Supreme Court ruling that upheld it. One of these cases took place in New Jersey, and resulted in the construction of a Sweat Lodge on the grounds of South Woods State Prison, Bridgeton. At first, inmates being held at other institutions were transported to South Woods to participate in the ritual.

While this was a success for the inmates, it did not come without compromises. Prison officials did not allow for the wearing of colored headbands, as is customary during ceremonies, due to potential gang representation and promotion. The Supreme Court’s decision included a clause describing the importance of considering inmate requests along with security concerns.

A Supervising Corrections Officer at South Woods State Prison declined to confirm or deny the current existence of a Sweat Lodge on prison grounds, characterizing it as “personal information.”

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~ by David on April 3, 2010.

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