Religious Programs in the Federal Bureau of Prisons

Religious Programs in the Federal Bureau of Prisons

Inmates incarcerated within the Federal Bureau of Prisons
have access to a number of religious programs at their local prison
facility.  While religious service
offerings depend on locality and security level, all federal prisoners in
general population status can expect to have access to a Religious Services
Department where they can explore and strengthen their spirituality.  Those in more restrictive settings (e.g.,
control units, Special Housing Units, administrative housing, etc.) enjoy less
access to religious programming.

According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ website,
“Institutions schedule religious services and meeting times for inmates of
many faiths.  Religious programs are led
or supervised by staff chaplains, contract spiritual leaders, and community
volunteers.  Chaplains oversee inmate
self-improvement forums such as scripture study and religious workshops, and
provide pastoral care, spiritual guidance, and counseling.”  All such activities are facilitated in a
federal prison’s Religious Services Department.


In a typical federal prison, the Religious ServicesDepartment offers a number of religious programs each week.  All major religions are represented in such
services.  For example, at FCI
Petersburg, Buddhist, Jewish, Rastafarian, and Wiccan faith groups all have one
service a week and one study a week.
This amounts to around 3 hours of worship and study time, respectively.  Other groups, for example, the Christians at
FCI Petersburg, have several additional services due to a Christian rock band’s
practice slot, the Christian choir’s practice slot, and additional time
afforded for impromptu worship sessions.
While it can be hard for “lesser” religions to gain a foothold
in a federal prison’s chapel (e.g., the Buddhists, Wiccans, Hare Krishnas, and
Santerias at FCI Petersburg have had some problems with this), with agitation,
some of the extra Christian worship, fellowship, and hang-out slots can be
afforded to groups which have minimal worship slots attributed to their group.

Federal inmates housed in units of restrictive confinement
(e.g., control units, Special Housing Units, etc.), are still allowed to
practice their religion, but in a severely scaled down fashion.  For example, a Christian inmate will be
allowed to have their Bible or a Muslim prisoner will be allowed to possess a
Koran in their cell, but they will only be able to pray and study by
themselves.  Group practice is not
permitted.  Also, since these federal prisoners
are locked in their cells for significant periods of time — and are presumably
security risks — they are barred from going to the Religious Services
Department for religious programming.  As
such, a BOP staff chaplain fulfills his pastoral care duties by walking around
once or twice a week and speaking to each interested inmate.  This “counseling,” if you can call
it that, is fulfilled through a locked, steel door.  Thus, while it might be constitutional, the prisoner
is, in reality, isolated and a community of one.

As for specific religious pageantry and application in daily
living, the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ website clarifies, “Inmates can
observe religious holy days and wear and use religious items consistent with
their faith as long as this is consistent with [Federal Bureau of Prisons’]
policy and with the security, safety, and good order of the
institution.”  This includes work
proscription days, one special meal for each authorized faith each year, and religious
special purchase orders where prisoners of each faith group can purchase
religious items from the Religious Services Department, though, some of the
application of each of these religious practice components depends upon the
prison staffers.  For example, at FCI
Petersburg, days of religious proscription have been cancelled due to members
of the “lesser” religions not being placed on the call-out for time
off of work, special meals not being ordered, and lieutenants disagreeing with
religious medallions or necklaces being worn in a visible manner.

Religious programs and services in the Federal Bureau of
Prisons are certainly not all that they could be, but with individual study,
spiritual formation and reformation can most certainly be fulfilled.  And with rehabilitative and educational
programs being cut due to budget restrictions, religious programs may very well
be the only type of true reform and growth opportunity which a federal prisoner
can still engage in.  And this has to
count for something.