For a decade, the Rev. Ronald Apollo had been employed by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and was head chaplain at a medium-security prison in Bennettsville, South Carolina. He had served even longer as a U.S. Air Force chaplain.
He belongs to a Pentecostal denomination which directs its members to shun “weapons of human strife.” In all Rev. Apollo’s time as a military or prison chaplain, he had never been required to carry a weapon or wear protective equipment. During his service as a military combat zone chaplain, he was forbidden to bear arms. Similarly, BOP’s manual does not require prison chaplains to receive weapons training.
But in February 2013, Eric Williams, a young correctional officer in the high-security federal prison in Pennsylvania, was killed by an inmate wielding a homemade shank. The attack came during nightly lockdown where Williams was the only corrections officer in a unit housing 130 inmates. Williams was equipped only with keys, handcuffs and a radio.
At that time, BOP didn’t routinely equip federal corrections officers with aerosol canisters of oleoresin capsicum “pepper spray,” although it had a pilot program providing correctional officers pepper spray as non-lethal defensive equipment in seven of its 65 medium or high-security prisons. Three days after Williams’s murder, the pilot program expanded to all 17 federal high-security prisons; BOP later began issuing pepper spray to all corrections officers who encounter inmates at medium or high-security prisons.
Congress unanimously passed the “Eric Williams Correctional Officer Protection Act,” and President Obama signed it in March 2016. It authorizes BOP to issue pepper spray in medium and high-security prisons, to correctional officers and other people it chooses, requires them to be trained in its use, and calls for BOP to report on how effective and expensive the policy has been, and assess whether it should be expanded into lower-security settings.
Even though the law said nothing about chaplains, BOP’s policy appeared to change. An agency spokesman said all chaplains must carry pepper spray, and some were denied access to prisons or faced other repercussions for refusing. Until very recently, Rev. Apollo was not allowed to meet with inmates due to his refusal to carry pepper spray. He says it not only violates his religious beliefs, but also makes inmates view chaplains as part of prison security, not spiritual advisers. Rev. Apollo said a BOP newsletter shortly before the bill’s passage said chaplains would be exempt, echoed in a March 2016 agency memo. But by June, he was having problems with managers at his prison and in BOP. Despite appeals to both levels, he was told he could no longer meet with inmates unless he carried pepper spray.
But after Liberty Counsel, an advocacy group for conservative Christians, summoned its lawyers to represent Rev. Apollo and other chaplains with similar problems, they pointed out that several federal laws, notably the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA), set very high standards for federal policies hampering religious practices. Soon it was announced BOP had found an “accommodation” that would not require chaplains to carry pepper spray.
Christopher Zoukis is an outspoken prisoner rights and correctional education advocate who is incarcerated at FCI Petersburg Medium in Virginia. He is an award-winning writer whose work has been published widely in major publications such as The Huffington Post, Prison Legal News, New York Daily News and various other print and online publications. Learn more about Christopher Zoukis at christopherzoukis.com and prisoneducation.com.