Inmates say faith is curbed Jessup prisoners file suit over worship rules

March 07, 1993|By Angela Winter Ney | Angela Winter Ney,Staff Writer

Maryland prison inmates representing six religious groups have gone to federal court to overturn recent Division of Correction regulations they say violate their civil rights.

The regulations, which lock prisoners into one denomination and restrict the number of services they can attend, hamper their ability to practice their faith, argues Jason Hamm-Bey, a prisoner at the Maryland Correctional Institution in Jessup.

"They are prohibiting our freedom of religion and worship. This violates our constitutional right to freedom of religion," says Mr. Hamm-Bey, a member of the Moorish Science Temple of America Islamic sect.

Also represented in the suit are Jews, Roman Catholics and Protestants, as well as three other Islamic groups.

Mr. Hamm-Bey says he and the others filed the suit because they believe religion helps prisoners change. "I've seen some of the worst men turn into good men when they had the opportunity to seek and find God," he says.

Cpl. J. Scott McCauley, a spokesman for the prison system, declined to comment.

The controversy that sparked the lawsuit began in October when state prison officials issued directives designed to give equal time to various religious denominations, correctional officials have said. The directives stem from a lawsuit in the 1970s in which Black Muslims demanded equal rights with other religious groups.

But prison officials' response has caused a greater problem, says Mr. Hamm-Bey.

The directives required prisoners to register a denominational preference when they enter prison, forbids them to attend services of another denomination and allows them to change denominations only at certain times during the year.

Jessup prisoners filed suit in U.S. District Court in Baltimore almost immediately after the directives were issued.

On Nov. 13, Judge William M. Nickerson sent the prisoners back to seek redress through the institution first. Eugene Nuth, the warden at MCI-Jessup, rejected their appeal to revoke the regulations.

Meanwhile, church representatives, who also protested the new restrictions as unworkable, persuaded state correctional officials in December to rescind some of the regulations.

But prisoners say the Division of Correction's oral agreement with church leaders did not eliminate the bulk of the new rules that hamper inmates from practicing their faith. On Feb. 8, the prisoners filed a motion to have the suit resumed.

Approximately half of the 1,100 prisoners at MCI-Jessup participate in religious services.

Olinda Moyd, vice president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland and active in prisoners'-rights groups, said she supports the prisoners, although the ACLU has not joined the prisoners in their suit.

"Obviously, the tentative agreement hasn't amounted to much," said Ms. Moyd. "We encourage the prisoners, and I'm glad they (( are aggressive enough to go ahead and take the next step, since they feel the negotiations have not worked."

Prisoners at the Roxbury Correctional Institution, the Eastern Correctional Institution and the Maryland House of Correction are filing similar lawsuits, says Mr. Hamm-Bey.

In addition to limiting their ability to practice religion, the prisoners also contend that the preference form they must sign to register a faith unfairly forces Protestants and Muslims to choose among a specific denomination or sect of their faith, while Catholics, American Indians and Buddhists are not sectioned off.

For example, a Maryland prison inmate who registers as "Evangelical" cannot attend a Baptist or Methodist service.

Religious volunteers and prisoners have complained most loudly that the rules curtail the number of religious events prisoners may attend.

Says Mr. Hamm-Bey: "You have budget cuts in the Division of Correction, and you have people who will offer rehabilitative work for free, why would you hinder them?"

VTC On the prison tiers, the men are surrounded by loud noise, with nothing to do but watch television and play games, says Mr. Hamm-Bey.

"If that's all you do, you're going to have problems," he says. Seeking connections with religious volunteers "helps people not be hostile or animal. It gives them hope they can go home and do the right thing."

In addition, attending services develops a prisoner's positive sense of self, he said. When the men line up for chapel services, "they're ready, like hungry dogs ready to eat. They get dressed up nice and clean, and it's a good thing."

Mr. Hamm-Bey says his Islamic faith changed his life. An intravenous drug user, he robbed to support his habit. He was imprisoned for possessing a handgun and for using and selling cocaine.

But in 1987, God changed his outlook on life, says the 33-year-old. "Narcotics Anonymous didn't help me. Alcoholics Anonymous didn't help me. Nothing else, none of these therapy groups helped. Once I got in accordance with the laws of God and his holy book, people could see the change in me. I started doing productive things."

Mr. Hamm-Bey learned to type, took classes in business management and in 1990 earned his paralegal degree.

"Without the religious services the directives are curtailing, I wouldn't be the different person that I am," he says.

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