Credit: John Moore/Getty Images
By Daniel Genis
When I entered New York state’s prison system in 2004 to serve 10 years, I was shaved, given a number and told to check the box next to my religion. Prison guards handed me a long list of faiths: In addition to the regulars, there were Odinism, Rastafarianism, and the Nation of Gods and Earths. (The latter was once considered a gang, but years of lawsuits had turned it into a viable religious option.) Had I been honest, I would have checked the box next to “atheist.” Instead, I marked “Jewish,” reflecting my father’s heritage.
My motivation wasn’t the access to kosher meals or a desire to belong to a clan in prison, though both drive convicts’ religious affiliations behind bars. I opted in because I wanted to work for rabbis, a job that would put me in the company of educated thinkers whom I could relate to during the lonely decade I had stretching before me. Ultimately, it did more than that. It showed me the dishonest ways religion is spread in prison. The evangelists I saw used prisoners’ desperation to add to their faiths’ numbers.
The first thing I noticed after beginning my sentence — for five counts of armed robbery, a consequence of heroin addiction — was how many faiths were represented. During my decade behind bars, I met thousands of prisoners in 12 of New York’s joints, both maximum- and medium-security. I spoke with agents of Opus Dei, Fez-wearing Moorish Science Temple members, a few Druids and a surprisingly nice Satanist. I encountered Wiccans (warlocks, never witches), Odinists (worshipers of the Norse pantheon and almost exclusively white supremacists, though one Colombian was brought in), Nation of Islam men in bow ties (Farrakhan’s Muslims), Hebrew Israelites (black Jews), Zen Buddhists (meditation pushers), one Sikh (a Kashmiri cabbie who killed his passenger but fed me curry) and one Jedi (charming fellow, heinous murder). No one but me believed in nothing.
One reason a thousand flowers have bloomed is that the evangelism typical of mainstream faiths such as Catholicism and Protestantism has spread to newer players who place a greater value on the souls of convicts. At most, there are 20,000 followers of the pagan religion Asatru, sometimes referred to as Odinism, in the United States, while Catholics number 78.2 million. Hardly any Catholic missionaries came to the 12 facilities where I was housed, but I saw many evangelists from outsider faiths visit. Winning one new convert to a tiny corps is far more significant than winning 10 new converts to a horde.
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