The Land of the (Not Quite) Free: Women and Religion Behind Bars by Amy Levin
The sun was setting on an early Friday evening in October 2008 as I pulled into the parking lot of the Iowa Correctional Institute for Women, a maximum level security prison housing nearly 700 inmates. Though the serene drive on Iowa’s main highway lasted a mere 40 minutes from Grinnell to Mitchellville, my co-teacher and I felt worlds away from our tiny utopian bubble of books and booze. As we gathered our teaching materials for a course we designed called “Feminist Playwriting,” we made sure not to bring in any contraband, one of the many precautions given during our orientation for students participating in Grinnell Liberal Arts in Prison, a program created in 2003 that allows students to design liberal arts courses in either a men or women’s Iowa prison. My experience interacting with an incredible roomful of women, some who would suffer behind bars for the rest of their lives, was needless to say a life changing experience. That semester ignited a fire in me for prison rights, which recently has manifested in a concern for the nexus of religion and prison.
Many Americans view prison and prisoners through a binary lens – the good are free, and the bad are behind bars, or at least should be. We also tend to pride ourselves on the fact that we value freedom, but when Francis Scott Key invoked the phrase “Land of the Free,” he must not have predicted that the United States would imprison more people than any other country on the planet. America incarcerates roughly 2.3 million Americans, 208,000 of which are women. As a New York Times article in 2008 put it quite shockingly: “The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population. But it has almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.” These statistics do not even touch upon the staggering disproportionate number of African Americans in prison, and it certainly doesn’t tell us anything about women’s experiences in prison.
Helping to fill this void, my co-teacher from the Grinnell prison program is in the process of finishing her film, The Grey Area, which documents the experiences of those in the Iowa Correctional Institute for Women. Similar efforts include the “Women Behind Bars” project, and Interrupted Life: Experiences of Incarcerated Women in the United States, all of which raise awareness to the fact that factors like sexual and physical abuse, poverty, and drug use are large contributors to female incarceration. There are also those who argue for prison reform, from Elizabeth Fry, the American Quaker and minister who wrote about and visited women’s prisons in the early 1800s, to “Occupy Prison,” which supports “Abolishing unjust sentences, such as the Death Penalty, Life Without the Possibility of Parole, Three Strikes, Juvenile Life Without Parole, and the practice of trying children as adults,” among a list of other demands.
But now to add religion into the mix. Depending on what we mean by religious freedom, it seems that the commingling of religion and prison can both expand and limit the agency of incarcerated women and men. Based on my nascent knowledge of “Prison Religion,” there seem to be two (related) narratives going on concerning this relationship. 1. Prisoners should/shouldn’t be allowed to practice religious rituals that require any special treatment, and 2. Religion can/cannot help reduce the rate of recidivism (criminal relapse) and thus faith-based rehabilitation programs should/shouldn’t take the place of government funded ones. To begin with the first, in the past year or so we witnessed Representative Peter King’s (R-NY) hearings on what he offensively called “prislam,” where he argued for the danger of radical Islam spreading throughout prison walls. Additionally, there was the Jezebel story of the a woman who sued the Supreme Court for making her remove her hijab, as well as the coverage of prisoners having extreme difficulty obtaining kosher, halal, and vegetarian food even with the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Act of 2000 (“RLUIPA”), which guarantees these rights.
The second issue – faith-based rehabilitation programs – is perhaps more complicated, not to mention dangerous. As of 2005, as many as 19 states received federal funding for faith-based residential programs in their prisons. While some of these programs have decreased the recidivism rate, they also threaten the religious freedoms of religious and non-religious inmates, as well as perpetuate the shrinkage of government funding. In his book, Prison Religion, Winnifred F. Sullivan documents the trial concerning a faith-based program in the Newton Correctional Facility (another option for the Grinnell prison program), called Americans United for the Separation of Church and State v. Prison Fellowship Ministries. The plaintiff argued that the agreement between the Prison Fellowship Ministries (PFM) and the State of Iowa violated the First Amendment’s establishment clause.
The main problem with this particular prison rehabilitation program was that the inmates who were not evangelical (including Muslim, Jewish, Mormon, Catholic, Native American, and Lutheran) felt discriminated against based on their beliefs. Not only did many of the inmates who testified feel that the program wasn’t religiously inclusive, but because the program offered better amenities such as nicer bathrooms, sinks, safety, and treatment programs, they felt particularly abused. One of the arguments that the defending lawyers continually gave was the faith-based program was a choice, and that prisoners did not have to participate in it. However, when your basic human rights are on the line, the question of “choosing” between a safety cell lock and God, “liberty” doesn’t seem so readily available.
Faith-based programs aren’t just available to men, and in 2004 former Governor Jeb Bush announced the opening of the nation’s first faith-based prison for women in Hillsborough County. My concern is that while these programs provide the possibility of enhanced care and rehabilitation for some women, I worry that those who have already given up their basic human rights will have to give up another – religion, and that includes the right to no religion. Thus, it seems that when it comes to both female and male inmates, religion can provide a source of freedom, as long as we know when to keep it behind bars.