The Problem with Religious Privilege for Prisoners

Nov 6, 2014

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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9 comments on “The Problem with Religious Privilege for Prisoners

  • 4
    Katy Cordeth says:

    In court documents attached to Cavanaugh’s complaint, Nebraska prison officials say that they talked to the “founder of Pastafarianism,” and that they were informed that “it was a parody of religion.” Thus, the officials concluded that the “Nebraska Department of Correctional Services will not dedicate administrative and facility resources to support a parody.”

    See, this is why most nascent faiths splutter and die out within the first few years. If you want your religion to stay the course you need to stick to your guns and not admit it’s complete balls at the first opportunity. How many wannabe Messiahs came along before Jesus who blew their chance at fame, fortune and eternal glory because an undercover reporter from the Jerusalem Izmel got them to admit over a few bottles of Manischewitz that their dad wasn’t really God and their mom far from being a virgin was in her youth actually the village bike?

    Whoever this false prophet of Pastafarianism is who told the NDCC that it was a parody needs to be replaced by a true believer, or someone who can play the part of true believer and refuse to admit even under torture that the FSM is anything other than the genuine Supreme Being and Creator of the Universe.

    Scientologists are stuck with all the nonsense about Xenu and volcanoes and whatnot, but to give the church leaders their due they never acknowledge it is nonsense, perhaps because they know that any such admission would weaken the religion. Christianity had an inquisition as a response to those who started to question biblical notions of how the universe actually worked compared to the official church version; and in the West, Muslim medical students have to pretend they don’t believe in evolution when they clearly do so they won’t be shunned by their communities whose official take on such matters is that whatever the Qur’an says must be so and the Qur’an doesn’t say nothing about no natural selection.

    If atheists want Pastafarianism eventually to replace all the planet’s other faiths, they need to start taking it seriously. End this tongue-in-cheek jokey approach, remove the cheeky glint from your eye when talking about the Flying Spaghetti Monster with potential converts, and above all, when somebody asks whether Pastafarianism is a parody of other religions, answer with an emphatic No and assure them it is every bit as genuine as all the rest.

    Parmesan be upon you all.

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  • 5
    Katy Cordeth says:


    I am making all kinds of dumb mistakes lately. I’m still embarrassed that I thought Richard had an invisible dog with a fruity name.

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  • I saw a video about residential schools in BC Canada. The youngsters were ripped from their native families, and forced to pray to the Christian God for an hour a day, among other indignities. The official reason for this was to “kill the Indian in them”.

    The constitutional rights of the scapegoat groups are not well protected.

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  • Outside of ones home or in their preferred place of worship, there should only be one law. I have just been listening to a ‘debate’ on LBC radio in which a bakery is refusing to make a cake for a gay couple who wanted the words, “Support Gay Marriage” iced on it. They talked about the two rights. One of the gay couple and one of the bakery. There should be a clear law that states that if you want to go into the business world then you wave all rights to religious freedom. The second right is a human rights issue and should override any religious nonsense.

    I am not sure how the prison staff can stop someone growing a beard if that is what they want to do. It is a natural process and you just stop shaving. It can only be enforced by physically holding someone down and shaving them. They can only dish out punishment like, maybe, solitary confinement but even that would become uncomfortable for society if it went on for years. Taking away other privileges might work and I would be more happy with that. It should not be decided on religious terms.

    Any other offerings like Kosher food should NOT be offered by the prison service but should be referred back to the faith it comes from and financed by that faith. If that faith decided it cannot supply what is needed to one of their own then that prisoner should take it up with the faith officials and any court proceedings should be against that faith.

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  • Olgun Nov 7, 2014 at 6:54 am

    I am not sure how the prison staff can stop someone growing a beard if that is what they want to do. It is a natural process and you just stop shaving.

    I think the prison haircuts and the no beards rule, was originally to reduce the problem of fleas and lice.

    Similar rules applied in the military, where people from various backgrounds, with various standards of hygiene, were crowded together in cramped conditions with limited facilities.

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  • I have no doubt that is the case. The main reasons the court has heard, in my research is that prisoners might hide things in them on visiting days like, sim cards and obviously drugs. The case for says, it is a simple procedure of combing the beard to find any hidden gems. They also say that if a prisoner escapes then all he has to do is shave off his beard and he is not recognisable. If the beard has been worn for decades and there is no recent photo of the prisoner without the beard then I suppose that can be the case. A couple of years….well….not so?

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