Prison holiday practice disputed

Advocates say rules violate federal law

October 02, 2006|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,Sun reporter

Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the Jewish year, but some of Maryland's Jewish inmates might not be permitted to observe the holiday today.

State corrections policy guarantees the observance of one religious holy day for prisoners. Although many institutions permit two, that practice forces Jewish inmates to choose among Yom Kippur and the religion's other significant holidays.

Corrections officials say that consenting to at least one religious observance is the fairest way to respond to a diverse prison population.

"We have authorized 29 religions. That's a lot of holy days," said Nancy Williams, director of religious services for Maryland's prison system.

But advocates for the religious needs of inmates say that the policy violates federal law by requiring inmates to work on holy days and prohibiting them from practicing other rituals.

"An inmate doesn't leave his religious rights at the jailhouse door. It's not part of the punishment," said Bob Moore, legal affairs director for the Aleph Institute, which promotes minority religious rights in prisons and the military.

For support, Moore points to the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, which prohibits governments from imposing a substantial burden on the religious practice of people in prison.

Under the federal law, corrections officials would have to name a "compelling interest" - such as security - to prohibit a religious practice. However, limited staffing is not a justification. The law states that "it may require a government to incur expenses in its own operations to avoid imposing a substantial burden on religious exercise."

Maryland Division of Correction spokeswoman Maj. Priscilla Doggett said last week that the department is looking into the matter. "We understand the concerns of the institute, and we will definitely research the matter and review our policies," she said.

The state has about 23,000 inmates in custody, Doggett said. Not all declare a religious affiliation, but of those who do, nearly half are Protestant Christian and nearly a quarter are Muslim, said Williams, the director of religious services. In addition, 5 percent are Catholic, 1.6 percent are Native American and 0.9 percent are Jewish.

Members of all religions can gather twice weekly - once for prayer, worship or ritual, and once for study, Williams said. Each denomination or sect in an institution chooses its days for religious observances, and a representative discusses it with the chaplain.

"The basis for that has been the need to treat religious groups equitably, and the perception that to any degree that you don't provide inmates the same number of something, we receive allegations that we're favoring one group or we're discriminating against another group," Williams said.

Critics say the rationale is flawed. "This idea that the only way they can accommodate everybody is by limiting everybody is ... simply not in tune with current federal law," Moore said.

"You can't be uniform - religions are not the same," said Barbara A. McGraw, a professor at St. Mary's College of California who researches religion and public life. She says that in a pluralistic society, parity and equity should be the guiding forces.

Typically, correctional staff treat guidelines such as Maryland's policy as limits, said Gary Friedman, the communications director of the American Correctional Chaplains Association.

"Unfortunately, what happens is the minimum becomes the maximum in everything," the chaplain said.

Maryland's policy has been in place since 1992, although the practice existed before then. Guidelines were developed based on what wardens were already doing, Williams said.

"Most of them were able to manage two [holy days]. A couple said, `We couldn't possibly manage two,'" Williams said. "We set a minimum of one and encourage two."

Williams, who has been in her position for 25 years, said she has heard few concerns about the policy.

But Rabbi Menachem Katz, Aleph's director of prison and military services, said he's heard complaints for about six years.

The bare minimum observance of Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, would require followers to not work and to pray privately. Jews also abstain from food and drink for 24 hours - from sundown yesterday to sundown today, so prisoners must be able to break the fast after dark.

Given the chance to pick only two holidays, Jewish prisoners are not likely to elect to celebrate Yom Kippur, Katz said. "There's no group of Jewish inmates that's going to pick Yom Kippur because they're going to pick the ones with food," Katz said.

"By not taking the day off, he'd be desecrating the holiday," Katz said.

The state corrections department's list of Jewish holy days states that observant Jews abstain from work on six of seven holy days. Observances of two Muslim holy days, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, also call for abstention from work.

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