Religion in 21st Century American Corrections

By Echo-Hawk, Walter R. | Corrections Today, June 1996 | Go to article overview

Religion in 21st Century American Corrections


Echo-Hawk, Walter R., Corrections Today


Ensuring safe, secure prisons and providing rehabilitation opportunities remain twin goals even within burgeoning prison populations. As the year 2000 approaches, we commend ACA and America's corrections professionals for their excellent work in bringing corrections up to the standards of a civilized society, but we also ponder corrections' future.

Religion fundamentally will shape corrections in the future as it has in the past. Worship is a cherished American freedom. From the founding of American prisons, administrators have considered religion a cornerstone for rehabilitation. ACA's Manual of Correctional Standards (1971) states, "From its very inception in 1870, the American Correctional Association has recognized and emphasized the role of religion in the correctional process." It is no coincidence that "penitentiary" and "reformatory" are religious terms connoting penance and spiritual inspiration for reforming offenders.

According to the 1966 edition of ACA's Manual of Correctional Standards, "Religion represents a rich resource in the moral and spiritual regeneration of mankind. Especially trained chaplains, the religious instruction and counseling, together with adequate facilities for group worship of the inmate's own choice, are essential elements in the program of a correctional institution."

Religion may be the single most important rehabilitation path for offenders of any faith - especially for culturally distinct groups (i.e., Jews, Muslims, Native Americans, etc.) for whom religion is the key to self-identity, self-worth and human dignity.

In recent years corrections has faced changing legal guidelines for inmate worship. Prior to 1987, the familiar "compelling government interest" test was applied and institutions successfully operated under that test. In O'Lone (1987), the Supreme Court departed from this rule for prisons and fashioned a "rationally related" test permitting more restriction on inmate worship. Following O'Lone, many otherwise progressive institutions adopted increased restrictions on inmate worship with accompanying hardship for inmates, especially those of minority faiths, despite the importance of religion as a rehabilitation tool.

History reveals that it is impossible to confine "special rules" to one class of citizens. Thus, O'Lone's prison test was quickly expanded by courts to govern most nonprison contexts. By 1990, religious liberty for all Americans had been weakened by this trend. This situation created loud public outcry, culminating in Congress passing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993. RFRA ended the long and debilitating debate over legal tests by establishing one uniform standard for protecting American worship. Congress intended that RFRA be applied in prisons, emphatically rejecting O'Lone as inadequate in protecting rights that society regards as basic. …

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