Practicing Religion in the Federal Bureau of Prisons

By Christopher Zoukis

Any inmate who wishes to practice his or her religious tradition while confined in the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) is generally permitted to do so, subject to several penological restrictions.

Inmates' Right to Practice Religion

The right to free exercise of religion guaranteed in the Constitution's First Amendment applies to everyone, even those confined in federal prison.  Likewise, the First Amendment protection against state-sponsored religion, the Establishment Clause, also applies in the prison context.

While these constitutional rights are not absolute, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has promulgated federal regulations and program statements that aim to carry out these tenets against the backdrop of modern prison security and management goals.  Generally, the BOP has achieved this goal, but inmates should be mindful of several sticking points that must be dealt with.

For example, while the Federal Bureau of Prisons will endeavor to ensure that inmates whose religion requires a special diet -- say, Jewish and Muslim prisoners who request Kosher and Halal foods, respectively -- have access to such diets, those who seek a special diet because their religious leaders suggest it might not be accommodated.  The laws governing such matters are many.

Federal Bureau of Prisons Chaplains

Most BOP facilities have a Religious Services Department, known as the chapel.  Generally, these areas are in a dedicated location and supervised by Federal Bureau of Prisons chaplaincy staff.  In a typical prison facility, there will be two to four chaplains.  Most chaplains are ordained members of a religious group and are required to have had a certain level of divinity or religious studies education.  This could include Christian ministers, Catholic priests, Muslim clerics, and rabbis (as of this writing, there is one Buddhist chaplain in the BOP's 200 plus facilities, and no Wiccan or Pagan ones).

Group Worship

Most chapels have several rooms of various sizes in which scheduled religious services are held.  Generally, all of the major religious groups have at least one worship service per week, as do lesser-known traditions when there are inmates requesting such group access.  For example, practitioners of Santeria, Buddhism, and Hinduism are less common in the Federal Bureau of Prisons; as such, worship time for such groups is dependent on local demand.

When space and staff permit, many BOP facilities will also allow groups to meet for religious study periods.  Such provisions and space are, at least in theory, required to be parceled out in "equal" fashion, but most observers would conclude that some groups are more equal than others.  For example, some institutions will allow each group a one-hour study period, and then offer "open prayer" sessions that are effectively de facto religious services for a single group.

Individual Worship

There are very few restrictions placed on Federal Bureau of Prisons inmates who choose to exercise their religious practices in solitary fashion.  While there can be significant restrictions on property and cell decor, those who choose to practice in the privacy of their cell are generally left alone.  Practice in "public" location, like the recreation yard, is also permitted.  However, unauthorized groups will usually be ordered to disperse.  In many institutions, for example, Muslim inmates are permitted to perform daily prayers wherever they choose, but even small groups will not be tolerated.

Every BOP inmate is permitted to request religious holy days, in which they are relieved of work assignments, consistent with their stated religious preferences.  The Federal Bureau of Prisons keeps an annual master calendar of such days, but less-familiar religious holidays can be recognized upon application.

Many BOP chapels also offer religious libraries and even DVD viewing stations for personal study.  As to religious property, inmates may purchase religious items (e.g., kufi caps, yarmulkes, crosses, etc.) via a special purchase program.

It should be noted that inmates whose religion seems overlooked are encouraged to speak to chaplaincy staff and utilize the administrative remedy program to ensure proper recognition, especially when one practices a lesser-known religion.