By Herb Silverman
I’m conflicted about privileging religion in prison, because government should not privilege religion inside or outside of prison. However, I think most prisoners should receive more privileges than they now have, and a substantial number shouldn’t even be incarcerated, yet they sit in prison because of our cruel and ineffective War on Drugs.
The purposes of incarceration should be to protect the community, to act as a deterrent, and to rehabilitate — not for punishment or retribution. More than 60 percent of prison inmates are functionally illiterate, and it’s no secret that people who learn to read are more likely to become productive citizens and less likely to end up in jail.
Similarly, those who learn to read, learn a trade, and learn coping skills while in prison are less likely to return once they are free. Help in finding a job upon release cuts recidivism significantly, and reducing recidivism through rehabilitation is less costly, more humane, and safer for the community.
That said, government should never privilege one religion over another or religion over non-religion, either inside or outside of prison. Unfortunately, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has asserted that the Constitution permits courts to favor religion over non-religion.
Here are three recent court cases about religious privileging in prison.
1. A Muslim sues to grow a beard in prison.
The U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether Muslim inmate Abdul Maalik Muhammad has the right to grow a half-inch beardin accordance with his religion. Muhammad could legally grow such a beard in 43 states, but not in Arkansas, where he is imprisoned. If such prison beards don’t create a security hazard — and I don’t think there is evidence that they do — why shouldn’t prisoners be allowed to grow them? If beards are hazardous, Muslim prisoners should have no more right to create a hazard than non-Muslim prisoners.
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