When a person goes to prison, they lose many rights — but not the right to practice their religion.
Inmates Daniel Alcortea (left) and Michael Coe cleanse themselves with sage smoke before entering sacred grounds at Sierra Conservation Center. Abby Divine / Union Democrat, Copyright 2014.
That’s abundantly clear at Sierra Conservation Center northwest of Jamestown — easily the most religiously diverse place between Tuolumne and Calaveras counties.
Thousands of inmates there practice practically every denomination of Christianity, plus Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, a palette of American Indian spiritual rites, and a smorgasbord of lesser-known religions like Wiccanism and Odinism.
The reason for accommodating all these religions is both legal and sociological.
In 2000, Congress enacted the Federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The law restricts any discriminatory or unreasonable denial of the inmates’ rights to practice their faiths beyond what is needed for the security and proper functioning of a prison.
Prison experts also believe allowing inmates to participate in a religion can instill values to guide their behavior and aid in the transition from institution to society when released.
Religious programs also cultivate a sense of community and ties with the “outside,” Prison Community Services Manager Damien Renault said.
“We all need something to believe in,” he said. “It gives us hope.”
Renault said his goal with all prison programming is to rehabilitate and bridge the gap between society and inmates.
If society doesn’t pay for rehabilitation programs, it will pay later for crimes the re-offenders commit, he said.
Renault said the state incurs many costs, like staffing religious facilitators and accommodating special dietary requests.
Sierra Conservation Center employs a staff including Renault, three chaplains, a part-time rabbi, and a spiritual advisor for American Indian and pagan rites. SCC also plans to hire a part-time Muslim facilitator soon.
The Federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act has opened spiritual and rehabilitative doors for inmates, but has also opened the doors for a flood of inmate lawsuits.
In 2000, after the act was signed into law, the number of lawsuits over religious freedoms filed by inmates jumped from 40 to 1,400 in one year.
Litigating such inmate lawsuits costs the California Department of Corrections more than $1 million a year, Renault said.
For the full story, see the June 27, 2014, edition of The Union Democrat.