Thursday, February 5, 2009

Do Prison Inmates Keep the Right to Religious Freedom?

Via NOLA.com's Twitter alerts, I learned that the ACLU has filed a law suit on behalf of a death row inmate at Louisiana's Angola prison who says that his religious freedom is blocked each Sunday morning as the television on death row is locked on Baptist church services. The inmate, Donald Leger aka lay-jay, is Catholic, reports NOLA.com.

The news brief also mentions another inmate, a Muslim named Shawn Anderson, who says he can't access the religious literature of his choice. The article does not indicate Anderson is also on death row.

Angola is the Louisiana State Prison that Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans used to scare the hell out of would-be-looters during the Hurricane Gustav evacuation, promising a one-way trip:
Part of the reason for the far more orderly aftermath may well have been Mayor Ray Nagin's admonition that "Looters will have a special trip." In remarks widely broadcast, he added, "You will not get a pass. Anyone caught looting in New Orleans will go directly to the Big House in the general population. You will go to Angola prison and God bless you if you go there." (The quote was apparently broadcast far outside of Louisiana as well-there were so many searches for "Angola" that it reached the top of Google Trends.) (Newsweek)
Angola used to be the word some mothers used to invoke nightmares in their sons when they wanted to scare them into good behavior. Perhaps it still is.

When I heard about the ACLU/Angola lawsuit, I considered that convicts don't necessarily get to keep all their freedoms. For instance, felons lose the right to vote. Is the right to religion a freedom kept by inmates?

The right to religion while incarcerated is not a new debate:
Whether it be religious diet, grooming, worship services, religious jewelry or even access to a chaplain before execution, inmates frequently challenge prison officials over what they allege are violations of their freedom of religion.

Two Muslim inmates sued California prison officials, saying they were forced to eat food forbidden by their religion. Christian inmates sued, claiming that Mississippi prison officials violated their First Amendment rights by refusing to allow inmate-led services and by prohibiting inmates from preaching. A Jewish inmate in Ohio sued prison officials after they cut his beard, which he says was necessary for his faith. Kentucky prison officials recently prohibited inmates from attending satanic services.

The Safley-O'Lone reasonableness standard

Often, inmates will sue under the First Amendment free-exercise clause. This clause generally prohibits the government from infringing on individuals’ rights to practice their religion freely. But prisoners do not have the same level of rights as normal citizens. Incarceration drastically changes the constitutional equation.(FirstAmendment.org)
I'd imagine that if you're on death row contemplating the needle, the right to worship as you please is a right you should retain, one that may be more important than other freedoms. However, do prisoners have the right to watch TV at all, much less the television show of their choosing?

Communion with God is personal and it's not necessary to watch TV to experience the presence of a higher power. The more spiritual among us might even say watching TV hinders genuine communion with the Spirit of God. Yet, if the inmates are forced to watch religious programming of any type, then perhaps it is the state imposing a religious preference upon them when the state should have no religion. There are deep issues to contemplate with this law suit such as the right to navigate our own inner lives even when we lose the right to navigate the physical world.

Chalk it up to another mile marker on the road of the "Holy Experiment."

More on Angola:The photo used: The pic comes from an article at UK's Daily Mail on the Angola rodeo. It's interesting to read a foreigner's perception of what goes on at Angola:
Welcome to rodeo day at Angola Prison, Louisiana, where 'Convicts' Poker' - the winner is the last man sitting as the bull stampedes the table - is just one of a raft of events in which prisoners are trampled, gored and flung in the air before a braying crowd. ...

... Even the prison's Death Row inmates get special treatment. Cain holds the men's hands and prays with them as the lethal injection is administered and announces that their soul has been 'sent to God for final judgment'.

He credits his mother for his success. 'Most people are going to die in here. I can't save their lives, but I can help save their souls,' he said. 'My mamma told me that I was responsible for their souls.

'God is going to hold me accountable. Therefore I took her seriously; you have got to do what your mamma tells you.'

But it's not all special privileges and gospel music. Cain's no softie. Troublemakers end up in Camp J - where they are stripped of personal possessions and live in solitary confinement.

And there are still plenty of fights, drugs and beatings. But generally, Angola is a far happier place, and one that's extremely proud of its rodeo where, to roars and shouts, the poker continues and the bull finally charges. (From the article "Death Row-deo: Our Prisoners Get Sky TV and Breakfast in Bed, but Look What They Get in the U.S." -- link)
The article also gives a brief history of the prison and reminds readers that prison is "named after the 'slave breeding-plantation' that stood on the site before the American Civil War - where men and women from Angola in West Africa were bred, worked and slaughtered like livestock."

When I was little and heard anyone say so-and-so was sent to Angola, I thought the speaker was saying the person had been sent to some forgotten country in Africa where no one cared about you and everyone had malaria. I didn't understand they meant the state prison until I was in junior high school.

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