Accord reached on services in prisons Clergy protested new regulations

December 29, 1992|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Staff Writer

Church representatives, who protested as unworkable new restrictions on religious services in Maryland's prisons, have reached an agreement with state correctional officials.

Speaking for an interdenominational delegation that met last Tuesday with Maryland Public Safety Secretary Bishop L. Robinson to voice strong objections, Lutheran Bishop George Paul Mocko said yesterday that the session "was very positive, very fruitful."

Some of the protested regulations were rescinded on the spot -- described by prison administrators as the results of misunderstandings -- and the others will be amended as religious and prison representatives reassess their mutual needs during the next 30 days, Bishop Mocko said.

"We told Secretary Robinson that the rules were so hampering our work at the men's and women's prisons at Jessup that it was pointless to continue," Bishop Mocko said. "But he expressed support for what we're doing, and we said we appreciated his security concerns.

"There was respect for each other's positions."

One of the new rules, put into effect Oct. 1, barred clergy and religious volunteers from taking books such as the Bible and the Koran into visits with prisoners. The reason given was that weapons and drugs can be hidden in them.

"This issue is resolved," Bishop Mocko said yesterday. "As long as the books are examined -- and we appreciate what can be smuggled in -- there is no problem."

Another resolved question involved the Lutheran arts and crafts program for men and women prisoners at Jessup. The program had been severely curtailed because of the state's need --

following a federal court decision in a case brought by Muslim groups -- to give equal time to various religious denominations conducting services in the prisons.

"This also was the result of a misunderstanding," Bishop Mocko said. "Arts and crafts will now be considered apart from the religious connections and will not cut into the time we are afforded for religious services."

Joining Bishop Mocko at the meeting with Mr. Robinson and other prison representatives were Auxiliary Bishop William C. Newman of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore; Lutheran Bishop Harold E. Jansen of metropolitan Washington; the Rev. Alfred M. Christenson, pastor of the St. Dysmas Lutheran congregation inside the prisons at Jessup; and Robert Mauch, president of a lay council outside the prisons that assists the congregation.

Bishop Mocko heads the Delaware-Maryland Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Yet to be resolved are certain details of prison regulations determining who is a member of each religious group, how many prisoners are needed to start such a group, and the degree of self-regulation that each is allowed. "We feel that our church council inside the prison walls, the prisoners' autonomy and self-determination are a key to the healing process and our dramatic success in reducing recidivism," Bishop Mocko said.

He said Mr. Robinson not only acknowledged this success but has asked the religious leaders to be part of new discussions aimed at expanding support for inmates after they are released from prison.

The interdenominational Christian delegation and public safety officials have agreed to schedule another meeting in about a month.

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