“Religion in Prisons–Then”

Tags: Freedom of Religion  https://www.history.com/topics/freedom-of-religion

Prisons and Religion  https://wordpress.com/view/criminologytheologyconnection.com


The idea of prisons in America was first proposed by a religious group.  The Quakers (or Friends) promoted prisons as an alternative form of punishment to replace the cruel and inhumane physical and corporal punishments that were used in England, Europe and colonial America.  The Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia was designed to hold criminals securely in an institutional setting and make them penitent for their criminal behavior.  Despite the good intentions and limited success of this “American experiment,” the prison and “penitentiary” movement expanded rapidly in the 19th century with scores of these brick, concrete, and granite fortresses still housing thousands of convicts nearly two hundred years later.  I regularly enter the secure gates of one built in 1889 for volunteer work in the prison chapel.


Religion in Prisons has been a reality from the beginning—but not without some “hitches.”  The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to religious expression.  Constitutional rights apply equally to persons convicted of felony crimes because they are not deprived of their legal rights as U.S. citizens. The courts have determined however that “prisons are different.”  Prison inmates do not have all the same rights as citizens who are not incarcerated. The reason: safety and security are the top priorities in prison, and federal courts have given prison administrators the right to limit constitutional rights if they infringe on prison safety and security.

That includes the First Amendment right to the freedom of religion. (See Sheldon Krantz, The Law of Corrections and Prisoners’ Rights in a nutshell (West Publishing, 1983, pp. 148-151)

A couple of court cases might best illustrate the right to religion in prisons.  The two cases, decades apart in time and miles apart in location, originated very close to where I was at the time.  I share these two cases in two parts: “…–Then” and “…–Now.”

The library of the Criminal Justice Center at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas looks out over the old original “Walls Unit” prison of the Texas Department of Corrections.  Just two blocks away.  The center was built by prisoners. Its location near the prison reflected its purpose: to provide criminal justice and corrections education; and in-service training for corrections and law enforcement officers and administrators

Just three years before I began graduate studies there, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in a major case involving religion in prisons [Cruz v. Beto 405 U.S. 319 (1972)].


Plaintiff Cruz

A prisoner who had adopted the Buddhist religion complained that he was not allowed to use the prison chapel, he was prohibited from writing to his religious advisor, and when he shared Buddhist religious materials with other prisoners, the prison authorities retaliated and placed Cruz in solitary confinement, 22 hours per day on a diet of bread and water for two weeks, without access to newspapers, magazines, or other sources of news.  The Federal District Court and Appellate Court denied his appeal, holding that his complaint should be left to the discretion of prison administrators.  The Supreme Court overruled and held that Texas prison officials discriminated against Cruz by denying him a reasonable opportunity to pursue his Buddhist faith comparable to that offered prisoners of other religious faiths.

Texas prisons encouraged inmates to participate in other religious programs, provided at state expense chaplains of the Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant faiths; provided copies of the Jewish and Christian Bibles; and conducted weekly Sunday school classes and religious services.  Good merit points were given to prisoners for attending orthodox religious services, and they were eligible for better job assignments and early parole consideration.  As a member of the Buddhist Churches of America, the plaintiff Cruz did not receive any of the good merit points and was instead punished for his requests and for sharing Buddhist materials with other inmates.

The U. S. Supreme Court found that the State of Texas unconstitutionally infringed upon plaintiff Cruz’s rights to religious freedom under the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution.  The Court opinion stated that the State discriminated against Buddhism, a religion that was established in 600 B.C., long before the Christian era; and therefore denied Cruz and other prison inmates any possible benefits of the Buddhist religion that may be comparable to the exercise of any other religion, Catholic, Protestant, and other Christian denominations.


Defendant Beto

The defendant in this case was Dr. George Beto, Director and chief of chaplains of the Texas prison system in 1972.  Before taking that position Dr. Beto had been President of Concordia College in Austin and of Concordia Theological Seminary in Illinois.  As Director of Texas prisons, he was instrumental in improving prison education through a unique non-geographical school district that covered all Texas prisons; and received awards and recognition from the American Correctional Association for his work in improving prisons.

The Cruz case illustrates the challenges of changing the prison culture, the perceptions of corrections officers and administrators toward inmate residents, and the long-established prison practices.  George Beto was ordered by the Supreme Court to personally pay from his own funds the legal fees of $10,000 to the plaintiff’s attorneys.

Beto joined the faculty of the Criminal Justice Center where many graduate students (including myself) benefitted from his knowledge and personal experience in Correctional Administration.  Together we learned about the challenges of running prisons which are resistant to change, and for which citizens and taxpayers want to lock up more criminals but do so at minimum costs to the State.  George Beto was called “walking George” by prison inmates and officers for his habit of regularly visiting and walking through all prison units.  We who were his students saw him as a professor and mentor who greeted us with a smile and “Hello, young man!”

My fellow graduate students and I did not hear about the Supreme Court case involving Mr. Cruz and the Texas prisons from Dr. Beto—nor did we ask him.  We sensed that the court appellate process and final ruling was not a high point for him—but he never mentioned it nor did he ever show any animosity toward the Court or the ruling for the right to religious expression—any religion—in prison.

Today I reflect back on religion in prisons then, forty years ago.  The Supreme Court Justices in the 1972 Cruz v. Beto case declared a truth worth pondering:  that prison inmates may well benefit from the practices of a religion established 600 years before Christianity.   No citizen, including prison residents, can be denied the right of religious expression guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

To my Christian friends who have difficulty with religious diversity in America I would say “Our God is a big God—and doesn’t need our feeble, human efforts to defend this Almighty God!”  This truth is confirmed through our reading of the Bible.  We can also learn from other religious beliefs, as noted by J. Philip Wogaman in his book, What Christians Can Learn from Other Religions (Westminster John Knox Press, 2014).

The United States continues to look to jails and prisons as a “solution” to crime.  The high rate of return to prison of released inmates suggests that incarceration is neither an effective deterrent nor source of positive change for convicted criminals.  Correctional expenditures are increasingly used for security with less money going for education, rehabilitation, and treatment services.  Prison administrators are therefore turning to outside volunteers for religious services and other programs to help prisoners make positive changes and prepare for reentry into society upon their release.  Religion in prisons makes a difference: both in the prison environment and for prisoners’ successful return outside the walls.

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