Priority Questions: Religion, Education, and the Prisoner (Part 1)


by Robert T. Elton

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." U.S. Const. Amend. 1 (1787).

As much discord as religious ideas produce, the doctrine of free exercise actually does great service to most all belief structures—considering its birth and adoption in history (this 1st Amendment works today, even in prisons). In the correctional setting, religion dominates the lives of many prisoners, if only because practicing religious beliefs remains one of few rights prisoners have once inside; education is another right (a statutory one). The comingling of education and religious ideologies—subsumed by criminal justice philosophy—produces a fervent mixture for all: a dance which must undergo careful choreography.1 In practice this surprisingly works itself out..!? The treatment of religion at Dick Conner Education Dept. is constitutional: a policy to not infringe, nor establish.

As corrections educators here at DCCC, our assumptions concerning expectations of adult learners are challenged once teaching begins; students do not robotically arrive and begin working out fractions or comprehension: after all, people have needs. We soon come to a realization that people must also be allotted time to practice their beliefs—the brief call to prayer for Muslims or the absence of the Christian for an entire day of class for service and worship.2

The various religious faiths thus draw time from lessons, and study, requiring patience and empathy from teachers for those believers. Yet this contrast is not the real dilemma, especially in the welcoming atmosphere provided by our supervisors here at DCCC.3 Yet, education and religion—while not generally antagonistic—are pitted against one another due to the scheduling of both activities at or around the same times. This is primarily due to the typical 8-hour day— the business day, not malice.