No religious freedom in prisons ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY

November 25, 1992

With all the problems facing the state's prisons, including the Maryland Correctional Institution at Jessup, state officials should have more important things to worry about than whether a Methodist inmate sits in on Catholic services behind bars. Yet that has not stopped them from enforcing a restrictive new set of religious rules that are as senseless as they are complicated.

The rules supposedly stem from a 1970s lawsuit in which Black Muslims sought equal religious treatment in Maryland prisons. But it's hard to see any connection between this case -- in which a minority religion argued that it had the same right to practice as any other -- and the absurd restrictions prison officials have concocted. Consider some of the new rules:

* Prisoners who register as members of one faith, including those listed as "non-denominational," cannot attend other services without changing denominations through lengthy paperwork.

* Inmates of one faith cannot use rehabilitative services offered by volunteers of another.

* Inmates with no religious affiliation can explore different faiths only by registering as, say, a Methodist, and attending those services for awhile, then completing the paperwork to change to Baptist and attending those services awhile, etc.

* Clergy cannot take religious books, including the Bible, into visiting rooms. It's a matter of security, prison officials say. Contraband can be hidden in books.

Prison officials maintain that they want to "standardize" services to "afford all religions the same opportunity." But equal religious opportunity does not require standardization; all it requires is that inmates be allowed to pursue whatever religion -- or religions -- they want. If anything, the new rules seem to violate, rather than secure, that right.

This is not just a matter of the 1st Amendment (and lawsuits are being considered on that basis).

It's a practical matter, too.

Much of the rehabilitative work that goes on within prisons in Jessup and throughout Maryland is done by religious volunteers for free. It's doubtful that the state, which is broke, would pay workers to take their place.

Legislators ought to take a close look at what is going on here.

The odds of reforming prisoners are low enough without restricting their access to something that might help them.

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