Christian wing of Texas jail impels excluded inmates to charge favoritism

February 11, 1993|By New York Times News Service

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Inmates call it the God Pod.

They're talking about a Christians-only wing at the county jail that features religious videos, hymn sings, Bible instruction and what one non-believing convict complained to his lawyer recently is "a cushier life style" than other inmates lead.

Tarrant County officials praise the unit, which they prefer to call the Christian Rehabilitation Pod or the Chaplain's Education Pod. They insist inmates have no greater privileges there than elsewhere in the jail, aside from being allowed to play a secondhand organ donated by a local church.

But some former prisoners at the jail, which normally houses up to 4,400 inmates charged with crimes ranging from shoplifting to murder, have protested.

The protesters include a Jewish inmate who objected to the concept and a Methodist who contended he was removed from the 48-cell unit and transferred to a dingier wing after his brand of Christianity failed to mesh with the fundamentalist strain encouraged in the unit.

Civil liberties groups have joined their side, and now the matter may be headed for the Texas courts.

While many jails and prisons around the country encourage inmates to practice their faiths, the Christian pod here appears to be unique. Spokesmen for three national organizations of corrections officials, as well as the not-for-profit Prison Fellowship Ministries, say the Fort Worth jail is the only one they know that reserves separate living quarters for Christians.

Don Jackson, board president of the Fort Worth chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, says he believes the unit is "a clear-cut violation" of the First Amendment guarantees of the separation of church and state. "You have a jail segregated by religion," he says. "It's exclusionary."

But Van Thompson Jr., an assistant district attorney who handles civil rights matters, says that residence in the Christian cellblock is voluntary and simply accommodates inmates' right to free exercise of their religion. "I feel like we're doing some good," Mr. Thompson says. Asked about legal challenges to the unit, he says, "I sure hope it's constitutional."

A certain amount of mystery surrounds the pod. Built on North Lamar Street near the downtown here, the beige-brick jail opened in 1990. It is divided into several dozen units, generally about 50 cells around a two-story recreation area, of which the Christian pod is one. The exterior is a sort of neo-Art Deco with green trim around the narrow windows.

Sheriff David Williams has refused requests from journalists to examine the cellblock. "It's nix-nix," says his spokeswoman, Lt. Sue Maddock. "It's off limits."

Asked if inmates in the unit enjoyed anything that could be construed as a special privilege, Chief Deputy Jail Administrator Pat Howell responds: "Yeah, they've got an organ. Big deal."

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