The Christian Jail Monopoly

The Supreme Court recently ruled on two nearly identical cases involving prisoners and religion, and reached two different conclusions. In February, SCOTUS decided it was okay to execute a Muslim prisoner in Alabama without an imam present, as the prisoner had requested. In Alabama, only Christian ministers are allowed in the death chamber, and apparently that was okay with the SCOTUS. This week, SCOTUS stopped the execution of a Buddhist prisoner in Texas until the state provides a Buddhist clergyperson to be present during the procedure. Texas provides Christian and Muslim ministers for executions, but not Buddhist ones.

If this seems a tad inconsistent to you, you aren’t alone.

The Court failed to rule in favor of Domineque Ray, the Muslim prisoner in Alabama, saying that he had filed his request too late. I also point out that Domineque Ray was a black man, while the Texas Buddhist, Patrick Murphy, is, um, not. And the two men were of two different non-Christian religions. Other than that, I don’t see a substantive difference between the two cases.

Regarding prisoner Murphy,

The court did not give a reason for its decision. Only Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil M. Gorsuch said they would have let the execution proceed.

Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, writing only for himself, said Texas’s policy was discriminatory.

“The relevant Texas policy allows a Christian or Muslim inmate to have a state-employed Christian or Muslim religious adviser present either in the execution room or in the adjacent viewing room,” Kavanaugh wrote. “But inmates of other religious denominations — for example, Buddhist inmates such as Murphy — who want their religious adviser to be present can have the religious adviser present only in the viewing room and not in the execution room itself for their executions.

“In my view, the Constitution prohibits such denominational discrimination.”

Why didn’t that same reasoning apply to Domineque Ray?

That is the same argument Justice Elena Kagan made last month when she and the court’s liberals objected to the execution of Alabama inmate Domineque Ray.

Under Alabama’s policy, “a Christian prisoner may have a minister of his own faith accompany him into the execution chamber to say his last rites,” Kagan wrote.

“But if an inmate practices a different religion — whether Islam, Judaism, or any other — he may not die with a minister of his own faith by his side. That treatment goes against the Establishment Clause’s core principle of denominational neutrality.”

Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan dissented from the majority in the Ray case. Domineque Ray was executed February 7. Patrick Murphy may or may not be executed; his lawyer is appealing the sentence.

This reminded me of the case of Frankie Parker, whom I wrote about back in 2008 — see “A Tale of Two Prisoners.” The point of this post was that, as governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee was infamous for releasing prisoners who had found Jesus but who then went on to rape and kill after their release. But Frankie Parker was a condemned man who found Buddhism. He was on death row when Huckabee became governor in 1996. Huckabee’s very first proclamation as governor was to arrange to execute Frankie Parker six weeks sooner. See also “Onward Christian Convicts.”

Here is an account of Frankie Parker’s execution by the Rev. Kobutsu Malone, who was not allowed in the death chamber. The state-sanctioned minister at Parker’s side when he was executed was Christian.

My larger point here is that in the U.S. Christian clergy have been allowed a monopoly on prison mission work since there have been prisons. Although there is little about it online, I know from my personal contacts many Buddhist organizations have had to spend a lot of time in courts trying to be allowed to offer books, meditation lessons and spiritual counseling to prisoners. Some states eventually permitted this; some, I understand, still don’t.  Christian denominations, of course, have these privileges in all states.

The 2008 documentary Dhamma Brothers is about the struggle to offer Theravada Buddhist meditation instruction to prisoners in Alabama. As I recall, the meditation instructors were permitted to teach meditation only if they swore up and down they would not teach the prisoners anything about Buddhism. I’m sure Muslim, Hindu, and other minority religions face the same issues. I don’t know if Jewish rabbis have met the same degree of resistance from prison and state officials, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

On the other hand, in 2017 a Kansas prisoner sued to be spared Christian proselytizing.

Shari Webber-Dunn — who in 1994 was handed a 40-year-minimum prison sentence for her role in the murder of her estranged husband — claims in a federal lawsuit filed last week that inmates at Kansas’s only women’s prison are subjected to an endless profusion of Christian imagery and propaganda, from the material posted on bulletin boards to the movies played in the common room.

The net effect, Webber-Dunn claims, adds up to an institutional message “imposing Christian beliefs on inmates” in a clear violation of the U.S. Constitution. The lawsuit argues the prison has created a “coercive atmosphere where inmates are pressured to spend their time in a high religious atmosphere and to participate in religious activities and prayers, thus violating the establishment clause.”

I couldn’t find updates on this, so I don’t know if the case went anywhere. I’d personally like to see independent studies as to whether all this religiosity makes any difference in prisoner behavior or recidivism rates, for better or worse.

8 thoughts on “The Christian Jail Monopoly

  1. The only thing correct in corrections is the root word.  Recidivism is job security and proves that evil people can never really get the devil back out of them.  How would it look if a person got out of jail after a year or two and soon became more successful than the low paid employees of the system.  How can one reconcile their success with the gospel of greed?  Only if we insure continued poverty and recidivism can we assure ourselves that the whole greed gospel might not be suspect.  I have not personally found the gospel, and am not sure in which testament or version even to look.  I need a scholar to reconcile that gospel, if ever found, with that pesky part about the camel and the eye of the needle.  

    Which legal scholar can reconcile the reasoning behind these contradictory rulings?  Is a mission to a captive audience really a mission or more an exorcism by the wrong name?  Do those incarcerated lose their freedom from religion too? Does access to religion depend on which one you want access to?   Is it national policy that all incarcerated people must be indoctrinated with some version of fundamentalist Christianity even if they are a none or other version of Christian or non-Christian?  I worry more about the old people awaiting death in the old age homes who face similar imposition of missionary zeal.  Is the motivation of the missionaries more a chance at a donation or genuine concern for the welfare of the person?  From what I have personally witnessed I see more evidence for the former than the later.  You do seem to lose your freedom from religion when you lose the ability to care for yourself.  Here the evidence seems overwhelming. Many other questions remain.

    "This is a low-rent, back alley cheap shot," Thompson muttered about the charges. He observed that many defendants get religion when they want mercy from the court. "When you see me coming out for Jesus you'll know they really have something on me," Thompson told the Times Daily.

    Songs of the Doomed, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson p.297 quoting from an Aspen Times Daily article entitled Thompson hit with 5 felonies by David Matthews-Price April 10, 1990.

  2. Through tRUMP, Mitch is busy seeding our Federal Courts with Federalist Society pod-people.

    These new "Justices" won't seek justice, they'll instead seek to support the Reich-Wing Christionista Fascist agenda.

    If a Democratic POTUS, with Democratic majorities in both Houses, passes a law, let's say "The Green New Deal," the courts will bend over backwards to declare it null and void.


    Because they can. 

    And hence, they will.

    We're fucked.

  3. I'm a Zenhead who has spent a good portion of the last 6 years battering myself into jails and prisons to help.  I can teach or tutor English, run poetry workshops, do art stuff, or give Buddhist mediation instruction.  I am all these things and want to offer the most useful thing I can.

    It has been excruciating.  

    The standard way in has been as a Buddhist, religion is definitely the key,  even though in my experience, working with language, poetry, and cultural literacy is usually more helpful.  There is a ton of mental illness, including the sort for which the application of Zen meditation, isn't going to be a balm. And so many people just need to learn to talk clearly enough to get a job, and to understand their experience well enough to present who they are, which to me, is a spiritual priority.

    Even though it sometimes serves me, I dislike the preference for religious volunteers over language volunteers who want to run poetry workshops.  I don't think its legal.

    I used to go into the volunteer office at the local jail where I tutored about 300 hours one on one and wanted to keep a dozen poetry books there that I used often in teaching punctation.  Not allowed. Walls and walls of books of Christian gunk. Hundreds of Bibles and Good News for this or that.  The AA culture prevails too.

    There was an elderly Zen priest who did a weekly meditation session there for about a decade.  She got cancer, was unable to work for about 4 months, and so they cancelled her. She's on her feet again and the won't let her back in.  The formal requirement for religious representation at the jail is that there has to be a religious representative of every faith available for emergencies or when inmates request counseling.  There is not a requirement that representation in classes and workshops represent religious diversity.

    The most prominent social worker figure in these places is the chaplain.  And the chaplain is important.  He's the guy who can recommend compassionate leave, he's a critical figure to have at any kind of time forgiveness hearing, you want him on your side for any kind of special consideration, and he's a born again Christian. He's also the guy who is in charge of religious volunteers and sits on our 6 Buddhist books for 5 months, and loses the paperwork so you have to do it again and sits on it another 5 months.

    At one prison I've been working in, inmates who have fairly soft felonies have a simple choice.  If you want two years off your sentence for good behavior you must take a three month long workshop that is completely based on scripture, and requires public confession, in a kind of messed up AA way.  It is unquestionably an evangelical scripture based Christian program.  You take it you get two years off.  You don't take it, you serve the time. They say its possible for Muslims and atheists to work with scripture too, the words and concepts of the scripture apply to those of any faith, so there's no problem.  And I live in a very liberal state.  This is not Mississippi.

    But here, after 6 years, with all my plotting and scheming, this is the best I can do: Last week I went to  prison to lead a meditation class.  There are 800 men in the unit I am visiting.  3 show up, 2 of whom are more or less crazy.  I know there are many more who would be in the class if they knew about it, even if they weren't interested in mediation, guys would show up to get out of the cells.  So what Im doing is being suppressed. With all the rigamarole that is required to get inside on time, it costs me 7.5 hours all told, to see these three men.  

    I'm going to quit, and I hate it that I am, but I feel utterly defeated.

    Of course the fact that Christianity is completely pervasive in these contexts is only a symptom of other kinds of wisdom prevailing in the corridors.  The culture in these places is so dull and ignorant.  It is a world unto itself.  You can question nothing.  I'm a vested senior volunteer, sponsored by a big agency, and I go past people at checkpoints where I have to sign something or flash a badge and over three years, 8 times a week, and encountering certain employees routinely in that capacity, a greeting has not been returned once. They don't make eye contact and grunt.  Behavior that would be unthinkable anywhere else. 

    These places are so sunk in so many many ways.

    • NotTonight – As a felon on the outside let me say this. I would not expect you to continue when you have tried so hard and have little reason to expect a fruitful result. 

      As a nice person with a devious streak, I might suggest that if I was against the prison establishment and the christain (small 'c' is deliberate) prison majority, I'd apply pressure where it might work. (Let me admit you may have tried this or a variation.) There are a lot of Christian clergy who practice the teachings of Christ. The tradition of visiting people in prison Christ explicitly endorsed and it was a matter of human compassion, not proselatizing. 

      Christian ministers unable to follow the teachings of Jesus are sensative to the criticim of being phony. (mostly because they are). That stings if it's in the public view from a Christian minister. There's also a tradition of Christ of calling out hypocrites. (Scribes and Pharisees ring a bell?)

      You obviously didn't try for yourself and no Christian minister should interven on your behalf. It's about people behind bars, their loneliness and hopelessness and the aid you could also bring. I hope you don't mind my two cents worth of opinion but as a man who spent a mercifully short time in lockup, I still think I have some perspective.

      And I do thank you.

  4. I do not consider myself a follower of any particular religion.  I have a Buddha statue and a Kwan Yin statue in my apartment.  I consult the I Ching, read Edgar Cayce and believe there is truth in all belief systems but no one system has all the truth.

    I live in a 55+ apartment complex. On the last day of every month, the residents have a birthday dinner for all who have a birthday in that month.  Before eating, there is always a prayer said.  Of course it is a Christian prayer ending "in Jesus's name, amen.  There is no consideration for any other religion. I am not required to attend so I always keep quiet. It is a short prayer and I do not say amen at the end.  In my younger years, I would have complained but I am getting older and do not have the energy nor  desire to make waves.  It would not make any difference and I realize it would not make me very popular.  So, although I desire to live in a little cabin in the woods, I just keep to myself as much as possible.  I am safe and comfortable so I count my blessings.

  5. Not Tonight,

    Thank you for what you wrote.  

    I used to teach college-level courses in a maximum security prison in Upstate NY, and other religion's leaders/teachers were welcomed in.

    But that was in the late-70's – and was a program where inmates could get college degree's from Associates to Masters – until Reagan took over, and the degree program was cancelled.

    Today, I wouldn't be surprised if even in NY, only "Christians" are allowed into the prisons.

    Imo:  The most damaging thing that came about as a result of Reagan's presidency, started when he welcomed in Falwell's "Trojan Horse" full of faux-"Christians" to be his foot-soldiers. Reagan invited the vicious cancer that is destroying  our body politic!

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