Red crepe paper garlands and half a dozen poinsettias broke up the blank white walls and heavy barred windows of the West Dining Room. The inmate choir, with a guitarist and two keyboard players, performed. A state chaplain gave the benediction and a prayer as correctional officers stood guard and about 75 men in denim blue uniforms bowed their heads.
The early Christmas service at the Dorsey Run Correctional Facility in Jessup is one of many holiday celebrations held in each of the state’s 24 prison facilities, which serve roughly 16,000 inmates who practice a religion behind bars.
Besides the widely celebrated Christmas and Hanukkah holidays, the prison system also makes accommodations for inmates who practice one of about 30 other religions, including nine branches of Islam and two dozen Christian denominations. The busy season for prison chaplains also includes the Yule celebration for Odinists and the Native American winter solstice ceremony this month. January observances include the Moorish Science Temple prophet’s birthday, the Moorish New Year, and the Rastafarian Ethiopian Christmas.
“It’s quite a task for chaplains,” said Charles Law, acting director of religious services for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. He has been a chaplain with the state since 1995.
A federal law requires prisons to provide inmates the ability to worship. Each prison has at least one chaplain; together the chaplains oversee 93 religious observances throughout the year.
When an inmate enters a facility, he or she can indicate a religious preference. Nearly 90 percent do. The largest groups in the system are Protestant Nondenominational Christian with about 3,000 inmates, Islamic Sunnis with 2,799, the Nation of Islam, Farrakhan sect with 934, and Roman Catholic with 785, according to data provided by the prison system. Prison worshippers also include Buddhists, Hindus, Jehovah’s Witnesses, pagans and Quakers.
Often, Law said inmates get inspiration from a book or a movie. At larger prisons, it takes eight inmates to form a new religious group to worship together, or four at smaller facilities.
State prison chaplains have a manual as a reference guide, but they also rely on volunteers from the religious community to help run services.
At Dorsey Run, a minimum-security, pre-release facility, Chaplain Adekolajo Aladeseyi said there are 11 religious groups, including Baptist, Sunni Islam, Buddhist, and Wiccan. Aladeseyi works with correctional officers to provide a space and time for them to worship. He also offers counseling, and he occasionally performs wedding ceremonies and other pastoral duties.
Aladeseyi recruits outside volunteers to help run worship services or weekly study sessions, like Greg Kame, an associate pastor at Jessup Baptist Church, who provided the intercessory prayers at the recent Christmas service.
Kame said he wanted to expand outreach work at his church to help some of the soon-to-be released inmates who need help transitioning to life outside prison.
“We want to reach out and spread the gospel as well,” Kame said.
Sometimes, chaplains are confronted with a new religion they aren’t familiar with. They must verify that the religion actually has a following outside the facility, and that the inmate has some knowledge of it.
It’s not uncommon for inmates to change religions while they are incarcerated. “Sometimes guys want to experiment,” Law said.
A Pew Research Center report polled prison chaplains across the country and found half of those surveyed reported “religious switching” among inmates.
Many prison chaplains were ordained in a particular religion before working for the correctional system, but they must remain neutral. “They have to be respectful for those religious faiths that they do not agree with,” Law said.
Some religious ceremonies require special items or accommodations. For some Native American ceremonies, the inmates are provided tobacco to smoke, although smoking has been prohibited in state correctional facilities since 2001. There are 466 inmates who celebrate Native American observances.
Some Muslim holidays require burning scented oil, which is provided to inmates in small quantities. Law said it’s carefully rationed out because the scented oil can also be burned to cover up the smell of marijuana or other illegal drugs.
During the Muslim holiday Ramadan in the spring, facilities must adjust food service during the month-long fasting between dawn and dusk, which at larger facilities can pose a challenge for dietary workers.
For chaplains and other correctional staff, it’s a careful balance to respect prisoners’ religious rights while also maintaining a secure facility.
In the 1980s, a group of inmates in a federal prison in Illinois who identified as members of the Moorish Science Temple of America, El Rukn tribe, sued over the right to pray together after law enforcement identified them as a gang, according to media reports. The FBI identified the group as “a violent street gang that trafficked in narcotics and stolen property” in Chicago and other cities. Earlier this year, a group of inmates in Virginia fought to meet as part of the Nation of Gods and Earths, also known as the Five Percenters, who believe that the black man is god. But prison officials were concerned the group was a gang that promoted racial superiority and didn’t permit the group to worship. A federal judge ultimately ruled in favor of the group.
Chaplains don’t participate in all ceremonies, but they can help connect inmates with resources.
Despite the interest in Odinism/Ásatrú, which has nearly 200 inmate followers, Law said it’s difficult for chaplains to locate volunteers. The religion, whose members worship the Norse gods, such as Odin and Thor, originated thousands of years ago and has seen increasing interest.
During his time with the state, Law said he’s seen increased interest in Judaism, which he said might be partially attributed to the popularity of kosher meals.
At Dorsey Run, the Christmas service was held a week before Christmas because of staffing, said Thomas Wolfe, the facility’s assistant warden. Christmas Day is usually busy because many families come to visit inmates, he said.
At the service, Law gave the benediction in which he spoke of the difficulty of being away from home during a holiday. He called it “one of the toughest times” for the population he serves.
“Some of you out there are fathers… It’s tough being away from them,” he said from a lectern draped in purple fabric and gold garland.
“It’s not unknown to the lord that you are here,” he said.
But, “God’s love is so deep because he’s given you a family right here,” Law added, causing some inmates to call out “amen” in response.
Members of the choir played several songs that brought the men to their feet. Three correctional officers watched over the service, including one who tapped her foot to the music.
The ability to practice religion behind bars has been an outlet of support for inmates, and camaraderie while away from home.
Kenneth Richards, 24, of Prince George’s County, has been incarcerated since he was convicted of second-degree rape, according to court records. He says he’s found strength serving as an inmate pastor.
The experience with his inmate family has helped him through difficult periods, he said, like the death of his 10-year-old son whose funeral he missed because of his incarceration.
“When you come together, you feel comfortable,” Richards said. “It’s therapeutic.”