Religion in Corrections-National Institute of Corrections

Religion in Corrections-National Institute of Corrections

DC Public Safety Radio

Radio Show available at

Len Sipes: On the nation’s capital this is DC Public Safety. I am your host Leonard Sipes. Ladies and gentlemen today the topic is Religion in Corrections. We have Ronald G. Turner, JD and PhD with us today. Ron is a frequent speaker in inmate religious rights. He had led workshops on the topic at the 2011-2013 American Correctional Associations Annual Congress of Corrections. In May this year he was a panelist on the National Institute of Corrections two day training on Religion in Corrections. He led workshops sponsored by the National Institute of Corrections in Denver for the Chief and Legal Councils and Food Service Directors for Prison Systems across the Country. He has also presented on the topic for the American Correctional Chaplains Associations and Corrections Cooperation of America. Ron welcome to DC Public Safety.

Ronald G. Turner: Thanks Len I’m glad to be here.

Len Sipes: Ok, First of all before we get into the program the program is produced by the National Institution of Corrections specifically Donna Ledbetter we appreciate Donna producing of the show. Ron this, Religion Corrections has been called the hottest legal topic in Corrections today. Is that correct?

Ronald G. Turner: There is no question about it. Since January 1st of this year 238 law suits have been filled by inmates across the country in Federal Court asserting religions rights. That is almost one new law suit a day.

Len Sipes: Now that’s amazing, I mean when I was in mainstream corrections for the state of Maryland for 14 years it was, people were astounded because they said how do you spend your day and is it talking about rehabilitation, is it talking about security, is it talking about reentry and I said no, the bulk of our day is spent in talking about or dealing with inmate medical care because that was the hottest topic at the time 12 years ago and now the hottest legal topic in corrections today is religion that is astounding.

Ronald G. Turner: Well there have been some legal developments in the last 15 years that account for that. We have a long history of freedom of religion in this country and the population itself has exploded in the last 25 or 30 years. So there are a lot of reasons for it. Many people will hear that statistic and assume that 90% of those law suits are frivolous and ought to be thrown out, from my experience that is not the case. A number of them are not frivolous.

Len Sipes: In 2000 the US Congress passed the Religious Land Use and Industrialized Persons Act and in an article you wrote recently you summarize it three ways, that Government must have a very good reason to limit inmates sincere religious practice, limits on religion must be imposed as gently as possible and inmates may exercise their religion in ways not necessarily required by their faith. That is putting a big burden on Correctional Systems to interperate all this and to put it into play, correct?

Ronald G. Turner: Well it is and it is really tough to jump right into that because when you start digging into that language particularly to your prison or jail administrator. You would throw your hands up and say why won’t congress do this to us and we can get into those three aspects of the law and I need to say it is the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, it is people who live in institutions primary prisons, jails and some hospitals.

Len Sipes: How important is religion in all of this. I interviewed an awful lot of chaplains either from the Islamic faith, from the Protestant, Catholic, Jewish faith throughout my career. I found my discussions with chaplains to be some of the most interesting in all the broadcasts that I have done on the American Criminal Justice System. They all seem to assert that religion is extraordinarily important for reentry for coming out, to maintain themselves while in Correctional Institutions. So religion is an integral part of the Correctional System and always has been from its very roots. Is that correct?

Ronald G. Turner: Absolutely, and we have a number of studies that have been done. My own PhD dissertation dealt with the impact of religious faith and spirituality on inmates particularly while they are incarcerated and you’re exactly right. It makes a difference while they are inside and once they get out and here again there is a stereotype from the movies that you know inmate find religion in prison and then they lose it the day they walk out the gates. That happens to some folks but it very often is a very real and sincere aspect of the lives both in and out.

Len Sipes: You have received your Law Degree and Masters in Theology studies as well as a PhD in Public Administration from Tennessee State University. You have quite a background in terms of looking at it from a theological point of view as well as the legal point of view so it seems as if you are the top person to talk to in terms of what happens in correctional systems and the topic of religion.

Ronald G. Turner: Well I appreciate it and let me just say that my Law Degree and my Masters of Theological studies were from Vanderbilt International and then I got the PhD at a later stage in life in Tennessee State but I think one thing that I bring to this, first of all I have a deep interest in it and an abiding interest in it but I have been a college Professor. I taught college for seven years. I practiced law for over 20 years and I do have the theological training as well as the PhD so I can talk to votes recruiters, like everybody who is sitting around the table when this issue comes up. From Correctional Officers and wardens to chaplains, their academics to commissioners and it is a fascinating topic. I think, frankly I am not surprised that it is as hot as it is because the law that we are talking about we will get into in a minute has been on the book since 2000. A US Supreme Court upheld its constitutionality in 2005 and inmates from my experience all over the country are familiar with the law and they are becoming more and more willing to assert their rights under the law. I think a number of prison systems have been a little bit slow to catch up to it but now they are being overrun by it. Particularly if you talk to any of the attorneys who have worked in the prison systems all over the country, they are spending lots of time on these law suits.

Len Sipes: I just want to remind all of our listeners that the Program Religion and Corrections is available at the National Institute of Corrections website. It is if you simply search for religion you will find the seminar on Religion and Corrections on the National Institute of Corrections website. Ron before we go onto the specifics of the program I do want to return to the importance of religion. I mean we run, we at the Court Services and Offenders Supervision Agency run a fairly substantial faith based initiative and we pretty much recognize that the faith community really is an integral, very important component in terms of people leaving the prison system, coming out in terms of being gathered and mentored to and helped by the faith based community they provide. In some cases clothing, shelter, substance abuse, alcohol, remediation. There are a lot of services the faith community offers both inside and outside the prison system so again the role of faith was an integral part of the American prison experience from the very beginning as it is now. So let’s talk a little bit more about that importance.

Ronald G. Turner: Well there is no question that what you are saying is exactly right. I do want to specify or mention the fact that one of the purposes of this law we call it RALUPA, Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. One of the purposes of it being passed was to protect the religious right of all institutionalized persons and I probably will refer to them for the rest of the program as inmates because we are talking primarily of prisons and jails.

Len Sipes: Yes.

Ronald G. Turner: So its inmates of minority religious faiths that are protected as well as Christian and other inmates of larger faith groups and the congress was very specific about that when they passed the law.

Len Sipes: But it is interesting in terms of the role of chaplain’s, I was reading in an article that you created that the role of chaplains also has to be their insistence that everybody is taken care of. The role of prison chaplains is to see that religious rights of inmate of all faiths are protected. So in essence that means that regardless to your religious orientation the chaplain is responsible for everybody within that institution to be sure that their religious faith is protected.

Ronald G. Turner: Well unless that responsibility has been assigned by the warden to someone else and usually it is not, it is usually the chaplains responsibility and from my experience as Director of Religious Services here in Tennessee for five years that is probably the most challenging aspect of being a prison chaplain because certainly, you know Tennessee is a conservative state. We have 16 state paid chaplains in 14 institutions and they are all Christians. Some would call themselves evangelical Christians and they make no bones about the fact that they were called to the ministry to save, you know to bring people to Jesus which is fine outside the prison setting or even inside the prison setting if the inmate comes to the chaplain and says tell me, you know tell me about your faith. Then the doors open but if a chaplain of any faith Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, you name it starts imposing their faith on inmates, if they are getting their pay check from the state that is where you have some constitutional problems.

Len Sipes: You know back in Maryland, this would be fairly stereotypical. I remember these conversations, do we allow certain people who use marijuana within religious ceremonies, do you allow marijuana to be used as part of this religious ceremony. There are some American Indians who fervently believe that smoke lodges or sweat lodges are an integral part of their religion so the question was do you allow sweat lodges, do you allow the use of marijuana. It is far more complex than that correct?

Ronald G. Turner: Well it is but with regard to that example there is a pretty simple answer. The Government has a compelling Governmental interest in plain English and a really good reason to maintain safety and security in the prisons. That compelling governmental interest is a reason to impair an individual’s religious practice. So even if a Native American has a sincere belief that they need marijuana or that they want marijuana in their religious practice, it won’t be allowed because it is a risk to institution safety and security. Safety and Security will always trump religious faith.

Len Sipes: Prisons are the very epitome of the word institution so they run in a very bureaucrat round peg in round hole sort of approach. They are cities to themselves; I have been in and out of prisons that have held over 2000 inmates. These are very large structures. When you start talking about individualized diets, a vegetarian diet or a non pork diet or the allowance of a particular religious ceremony or the length of an inmate’s hair, these are all things that the prison system has a hard time dealing with because they are used to walking in lock step. Again if it is not round peg in round hole they really don’t know what to do. When I was reading your article you were advising chaplains who work closely with attorneys for the state prison systems and again that the law says that institutions need to tread as lightly as possible on the religious right of individualized inmates. So prison systems are now required, as long as they do not have an impact on the security of the institutions to provide individuals with services that formerly were not provided.

Ronald G. Turner: Let me comment. I generally agree with what you just said. Safety and security is a compelling governmental interest and across the board it is. But we at the institution have to be sincere when we say there is a safety and security issue. Let’s use sweat lodges as an example and I suppose everyone listening knows what a sweat lodge is. It is essentially a structure that is constructed and used by Native Americans but there is some other groups that use them and they will have a fire outside and they will heat lots of rocks and bring the rocks inside and create, essentially it’s like a sauna and they will stay in there, the inmates will stay in there and its dark, for maybe four hours and it is a spiritual experience for them. It is a genuine and sincere spiritual experience but there are obviously some security aspects to it. It is dark, there are many time they want to go in without any clothes on and so forth. As a result some states allow sweat lodges and some states don’t allow sweat lodges even though RALUPA is a Federal Law that was passed by congress. It is enforced in all 50 states. It applies to all prisons and jails and other institutions that receive federal funds so that will be 99% of them. The Supreme Court has never ruled on the question of sweat lodges so what we have is Appellate Courts what we call the Circuit Courts of Appeals ruling in different ways on sweat lodges. Some are saying it is a security risk, we can’t allow it and others are saying well they are ways we can modify to protect the security risk and so we are going to allow and so it a pretty important rules on that question, that we are going to have a split circuit on that question. We have splits on a number of questions prayer oil, length of hair and beards, diet and that is one reason the job is so difficult right now of chaplains and prison officials enforcing the law because the provisions, there are provisions in the law that just have not been clarified by the Supreme Court but there is a case coming up later this year and we can talk about that later that might answer some questions.

Len Sipes: Our topic today ladies and gentleman is Religion in Corrections our guest is Ronald G. Turner extraordinarily qualified he has his Law Degree and his Masters Degree in Theological studies as well as a PhD from Tennessee State University. The program has been arranged and produced by the National Institute of Corrections and there is a seminar Religion in Corrections on the National Institute of Corrections website The email address for Ron is Ron okay so religion in corrections, you are dealing with prison populations, you’re dealing with the United States history but you are dealing with the first amendment that says the freedom of religion shall not be interfered with, shall not be infringed I think.

Ronald G. Turner: Yeah, the exact language is Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof what we call the establishment clause and free exercise clause that basically says we will not have an official state sponsored religion in this country. Likewise the government is not going to come in and tell you how to worship. Now that is a broad brush explanation of it but if I could I would like to take just a second and get into the reasons that congress passed this law in 2000 in the first place because it has created a lot of activity. In the 90s in the early 1990s congress held some hearings to find out whether religious, whether inmates in prisons and jails and folks who lived in other institutions were suffering religious abuse. Either they were not allowed to practice their own religion or another religion was being imposed on them. They found wind spread abuse. They found what they call arbitrary and capricious abuse. In other words there were time that things were denied to the people and there was no reason for it as a result. Congress passed a law in 1993 called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, actually it was much broader then just applying to prisons and hospitals but the purpose of it was to expand the religious protection of virtually all citizens under the first amendment. Four years later 1997, the Supreme Court struck down that law and said it only applied to Federal Institutions, it did not apply to the states. Okay. So you essentially have a see saw battle going back and forth here between congress and the Supreme Court. Congress did not like that, they are big supporters of freedom of religion and so a new law was prepared called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and Congress passed it in 2000 and I want to read a quote the co-sponsors of that law in 2000 were Ted Kennedy and Oran Hatch they were the co-sponsors in the Senate. Ted Kennedy said this about that law. The pioneers who founded America came here to practice their faith free from government interference convinced of the need to assure that all Americans at all times, the right to practice their religion unencumbered of course Senator Kennedy was a Catholic Democrat, Liberal. Senator Hatch conservative Republic Mormon from Utah had this to say. This law is important for the preservation of religious freedom of all American people especially those who’s religious beliefs and practices differ from the majority. It is pretty clear from their statements they were wanting to protect their religious freedom of everybody specifically the minority religious groups. So they passed RALUPA. Many people say why in the world does it have such a crazy name. well in addition to dealing with institutionalized persons the same law deals with religious discrimination in zoning matters and in a nut shell that comes up where a group of people buy a piece of property. They want to put up a church but it is not zoned for a church or a temple or a synagogue. They go to the local zoning authority or city council and they submit their application that covered everything in the application that anybody else would cover, it is in good form and so forth and the application is denied. It is pretty obvious that it has been denied because of religious discrimination. Well congress did not like that either so in the same law they dealt with that type of thing and it is way beyond the scope of our program but that is why it has such a fun name.

Len Sipes: It says in plain English the law says before we substantially limit inmate religious exercise we need a really good reason. The inmate must be sincere but the request need not be required by the inmate’s faith. So it is almost a self imposed by the inmate you know you could be a Roman Catholic but not follow the tenants of Catholicism and you could come up with your own interpretation of what they believe Catholicism is. Is that correct?

Ronald G. Turner: You are putting your finger on what I think is probably the toughest part RALUPA. Let me go back, this is what RALUPA requires and I want to talk about each component for just a second and of course this is not the legalese you can pull up the statue itself if you want to but in plain English congress is telling us that before we, and that is prisons and jails, sustainably limit an inmate’s religious exercise we need a really good reason. So the first things we might say is well we did not substantially limit the inmates exercises, the problem with that or in using that is that courts had not interpreted the word substantial in a very different way than we might off the top of our heads and many times they will find a burden on an inmate’s religious exercise to be substantial when we would say “What? Are you kidding?” So be careful if you are going to use lack of substantiality as a basis for denying a request. Secondly, it only applies to religious exercise so we can so well, this does not deal with religion. A Native American wants a feather, what does that have to do with religion. It has a lot to do with that Native Americans religion so here again before you deny a request saying a) this is not religious you better get your lawyers involved and let them do some research and find out what the cases have said about, you know what is religious. Another aspect of the law as it says before we burden religious exercise we need a compelling governmental entrance or in plain English a really good reason. Safety and security is a classic example of a really good reason because obviously the government has a compelling interest in maintaining safe and secure prisons but just as the inmate must be sincere when they submit a request to us and they do have to be sincere, we have to be sincere when we say no you can’t have it and the cases in the last few years have taken an interesting turn up until a few years ago when a prison official, a warden or a commissioner got up on the witness stand the Judge would usually defer to their professional opinion and say you are the expert, you know how to run prisons we don’t. We will defer to your judgment. Now under RALUPA if the prison system denies a request based on Safety and Security they courts are now saying, tell me why Warden or Commissioner why is it a Safety and Security issue and what alternatives did you look at because not only did congress tell us that we can’t substantially limit an inmate’s religious exercise it says if we do limit a religious exercise it has to be in the least restrictive way or the gentlest way and I can give an example of that. Let’s say you have this Native American inmate who wants a feather, I mentioned that before, and so we say you can’t have any feathers, no feather whatsoever they are a safety and security risk and a feather can be because you can stab somebody with one right. What is the most restrictive response we can give is you can’t have any feathers, no feathers and absolute no is the most restrictive response. What would be less restricted from that, what we might say, what might we say.

Len Sipes: Well I don’t know because either you provide feathers or you don’t provide feathers it seems to me to be fairly straight forward.

Ronald G. Turner: Okay well we could say small feathers. The reason a feather is a risk is because it is big enough and sturdy enough to stab somebody. Let’s say you can have feathers six inches or smaller. That is allowing some feathers, so in other words you are not saying absolutely no feathers which was the most restrictive response you are giving a less restrictive response by saying you can have small feathers.

Len Sipes: I do find this fascinating this law makes the world of difference from past years because the burden was on the inmate and now it’s on us so as you said.

Ronald G. Turner: That is exactly right.

Len Sipes: So as you just said. The warden goes in the court and in the past the court would defer to the warden, you are the expert we are not, you tell us. Now the burden is on us to prove that we are providing for the constitutionality of that religious service.

Ronald G. Turner: As long as the inmate is sincere and it deals with religion then the inmates gets it unless we can show compelling ways in why they shouldn’t and most of the time that is going to be safety and security that is 180 degrees different than the law before RALUPA.

Len Sipes: Yes it is.

Ronald G. Turner: It has turned being a chaplain in prison on its head. A number of chaplains are retiring now because this is not what the bargained for. It is not what they came in to do. Even those who want to minister to inmates of all faiths find it much more difficult now than before. In the good old days of pre RALUPA if an inmate came into your office and said, if a Buddhist came into your office before 2000 and asked for something you would pull your book off the shelf, a handbook of religious practices and you turn to the chapter on Buddhism and you might, let’s say he wants a meditation mat, you find in their meditation mat is approved so you can say yeah you can have it. If it wasn’t on the list he would not get it.

Len Sipes: It’s relying, I go back to a point that I made before and this is something from the 14 years when I was with the State of Maryland these monolithic institutions, it is almost impossible to make these individualized decisions to protect the rights of individuals. it is a burden beyond all comprehension because to run that institution and to run it on a budget at a fairly low budget, you have got to run things a certain way and now it is saying no, the burden is upon us, the burden is upon the state to protect the constitutional religious rights of the inmates and that may mean a whole host of individualized decisions to allow that inmate to practice his faith in a way that he thinks is valid, as long as he is “sincere”. That is a huge burden on correctional facilities and I understand why chaplains are having a hard time with it.

Ronald G. Turner: There is no question about it and it is one reason there are so many law suits pending right now. You mentioned meals. Religion in correction is the hottest topic, meals under religion in prisons is the hottest part of the topic right now particularly kosher meals and halal for muslim inmates and so forth and the courts are going all over the place with regard to whether we are required to provide kosher meals. The big question is which inmates are entitled to have kosher meals. Most courts are saying under RALUPA, you don’t have to have been Jewish on the outside to go through a conversion process and this applies not only to Jewish inmates but inmates of any faith. If you can sincerely show a religious basis for requesting the meal, let’s say kosher, you get it.

Len Sipes: We only have a minute left and I don’t want to leave this out. Hope versus Hobbes is an upcoming Supreme Court process.

Ronald G. Turner: O yes.

Len Sipes: Give me a 45 second submission of Hope versus Hobbes.

Ronald G. Turner: Hope versus Hobbes is going to be insured by the Supreme Court later this year so the first Supreme Court case under RALUPA since 2005 it is a beard case out of the eight circuits where the prison said you can’t have any beards for religious reasons. Well the court of appeals agreed with the Trial Court based on the fact that 39 other States now allow beards under RALUPA. My best prediction is the Supreme Court will allow beards. The question is whether the court will use this case as an opportunity to interpret some of these other ambiguous areas of RALUPA. It bears watching because the Supreme Court can answer a whole lot of these questions later this year if they want to.

Len Sipes: And the complexity that is going to go along with it for correctional administrators it is an amazing topic Ron.

Ronald G. Turner: Well it is fascinating.

Len Sipes: Quickly.

Ronald G. Turner: as I tell folks, federal judges are interested in protecting constructional rights and running the prison many times they will say that is the legislature’s problem or the executor’s problem.

Len Sipes: Alright Ron I’m going to stop you there. Ladies and Gentleman our guest today, it has been a fascinating conversation with Ronald G. Turner, PhD and JD we were talking about Religion within Correctional Institutions Ladies and Gentleman this is DC Public Safety we appreciate your comments. We even appreciate your criticisms so we want everybody to have themselves a very pleasant day.