Clerics protesting new prison rules

December 16, 1992|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Staff Writer

Three bishops -- two Lutherans and a Roman Catholic -- have scheduled a meeting next week with the state's top public safety official to protest new restrictions on religious services in all Maryland prisons.

One of the clergymen, Bishop George Paul Mocko of the Delaware-Maryland Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, says the regulations threaten his denomination's effective rehabilitative work among inmates at the men's and women's prisons in Jessup.

"We have had talks with the wardens of the prisons there without success," Bishop Mocko says, adding that six weeks have passed since an investigation of the clergy's complaints was promised but nothing has happened. He says he will be joined by Auxiliary Bishop William C. Newman of the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore and Lutheran Bishop Harold E. Jansen of metropolitan Washington at the meeting scheduled Tuesday in the Baltimore office of Bishop L. Robinson, secretary of public safety and correctional services.

The church delegation will ask Mr. Robinson to rescind the restrictions, Bishop Mocko says.

Cpl. J. Scott McCauley, a spokesman for the prison system, confirms that the rules in effect since Oct. 1 bar clergy and religious volunteers from taking books such as the Bible and the Koran into visits with prisoners. The reason, Corporal McCauley explains, is that weapons and other forbidden items can be hidden in the books.

Under the prison system's directive, inmates' religious groups may not meet more than twice a week. And if a group attracts fewer than four inmates, it may not hold services.

Other new regulations require prisoners to register formally as members of a religious denomination before seeking its benefits and restrict the time allowed for services. The rules were said to stem from a lawsuit in the 1970s in which Black Muslims demanded equal rights with other religious groups.

Corporal McCauley says the purpose of the restrictions is to "afford all religions the same opportunity to worship and study."

In the case of the Lutheran congregation among the inmates of the men's and women's prisons at Jessup, Bishop Mocko says, the limitation on the time for services means the pastor and church members must curtail such beneficial activities as choir practice, arts and crafts training and meetings to discuss congregational business, including evangelization and social ministries.

The American Civil Liberties Union has joined the protest.

Also planning to attend Tuesday's meeting with Mr. Robinson are the Rev. Alfred M. Christenson, pastor of the St. Dysmas Lutheran congregation at the Jessup prisons; and Robert Mauch, president of a non-prison lay council that assists it.

Bishop Mocko says the congregation has significantly cut recidivism.

With attendance ranging from 30 to 100 inmates, Bishop Mocko says, the self-governed prison congregation has had "dramatic success" in reducing recidivism among its members.

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