Practicing Religion in Prison

While a term of incarceration will result in many constitutional rights being curtailed, freedom of religion is not one of them, although the practicing of religion can be limited.

Generally speaking, prisoners confined within the Federal Bureau of Prisons are allowed to engage in individual and group worship activities for their chosen faith. Individual worship is permitted in a prisoner's cell, while group worship is limited to the Chapel.

Most major religions have a weekly service and a weekly study period. Common practice is for each major religion to be provided three total hours of scheduled Chapel time each week.

Along with a study period and a service period, practitioners are also allowed one religious meal each year, along with days of work prescription for verified days of worship. Special accommodations are made for Muslim and Jewish prisoners, who require special worship times (e.g., Ramadan) and eating arrangements (e.g., eating in a tabernacle). Religious diets are also available for those interested.

While prison can leave a lot to be desired in terms of religious worship, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has rather robust religious offerings for interested inmates, especially compared to a number of state prison systems.

The Chapel not only houses a religious library and televisions for religious movie viewing, but it is also staffed by several chaplains, all of whom must have a Master's degree in a religious discipline. Larger groups (e.g., Christian and Muslim) have chaplains and outside religious volunteers who sometimes lead services. For the religions with fewer followers, along with the study periods for the religions with a larger number of followers, the prisoner who knows the most and has been around for the longest typically conducts the services.

While Christian and Muslim services tend to be the best-attended, Wiccan, Jewish, Buddhist, Nation of Islam, Rastafarian, Catholic, Jehovah's Witness, Santeria, Hindu, and Druid services, amongst others, are also provided worship and study time.

If you are interested in signing up for religious services, all you need to do is go to the Chapel when you see the door open and look for a poster that shows the various study and worship times. Unless you have a work assignment that has you working during the worship or study periods, you can attend. If, on the other hand, you are assigned to a job during those times, you can ask to be placed on call-out so you can attend.

You don't have to declare a religion, but if you choose to, then you can participate in the annual religious meal for your faith group. All services are open to everyone, so you are free to attend however many you would like.

Chapel libraries tend to be well-funded and, as such, have a wide variety of offerings. While you don't need to sign up to check out a book, you do need to sign up in order to watch a religious movie. This is usually done by speaking with the head inmate clerk over the Chapel.

You are allowed to keep a Bible, Koran, or other religious text in your cell. While the Chapel might have extra copies of such religious texts for you to keep or check out, your family and friends can order such books for you.

You are also allowed to have a religious necklace, ring, or headgear, but it must be authorized through the Chapel. Most Federal Bureau of Prisons' chapels permit inmates to order such religious items through the Special Purchase Order (SPO) protocol. If you are interested in doing so, speak with one of the Chapel clerks to see a listing of authorized items and the ordering protocol.

If your religion calls for a day of rest or silence, you can participate as long as the chaplain is advised in advance and it is a well-founded requirement of the religion. In this instance, the chaplain should place you on call-out for a holy day, which will excuse you from work and other obligations.

Contact us for more information about practicing religion in the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

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