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 applications of each of these religious practices components depends upon the prison staffers.  For example, at FCI Petersburg, days of religious proscription have been canceled 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 that a federal prisoner can still engage in.  And this has to count for something.