Doing Hard Time

By Louis R. Avallone

It’s ironic. Just last month the ACLU sent a letter to the superintendent of Bossier Parish Schools demanding that “religious proselytization” at Airline High School stop immediately, especially with the principal’s unrepentant use of the phrase, “May God Bless You All.”

Then there’s the Oklahoma Supreme Court who ruled during the summer that displaying the Ten Commandments outside the state capitol building violated a provision in the Oklahoma state constitution and therefore, the display had to be moved. In Alabama, a sheriff’s department was pressured into removing “Christian” decals from their patrol cars which read, “Blessed are the Peacemakers,” after being threatened with a lawsuit, and realizing the time and money it would take to defend themselves.

Atheists continue to seek removal of “In God We Trust” from our nation’s currency, and an increasing number of groups are asking our school districts to remove the words “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance recited by students. There’s even a Facebook page to banish the singing of “God Bless America” from the seventh-inning stretch of major league baseball games.

Yes, it’s ironic. You see, it seems the only place in America where religious freedom is not being diminished, nor otherwise being dismantled, is in the very place where residents do not have full Constitutional rights to begin with – our prisons.

While prison inmates lose many of their civil rights, the freedom of religion is not one of them. In fact, inmates are overwhelmingly spiritual, comparatively speaking – only 1 in every 1,000 prisoners will identify themselves as atheist, compared to 1 in every 100 Americans within the general population.

And the importance of religion in prisons is recognized so much so that almost all of the nation’s 1,100 state and federal prisons employ at least one chaplain or religious services coordinator – nearly 1,700 professional chaplains in all. Could you imagine if every school in our country had a chaplain or religious services coordinator?

Of course, the role of religion in prisons is not breaking news, really. The Gospel of Matthew says, “I was in prison, and you visited me.” And Saint Paul, in his letter to the Romans, explains, “The love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Essentially, whenever we have this sense of connectedness or belonging with other people, our physical and emotional health necessarily improves and when we get better on the inside – everything just tends to get better on the outside, as well.

And the formula works, indeed. The rate of infractions while in prison, and the recidivism rate following their release from prison, is lower for inmates who have taken part of a prison fellowship program, compared to those who did not. In fact, recidivism rates are as low as 13% for inmates who participated in faith-based programs, compared to 50% who did not and unfortunately return to prison within three years from being released.

In addition to one’s spiritual development, the cost of administering faith-based services for each inmate – about $250 per year – is a fantastic return on the dollar, especially when our prisons are greatly overpopulated and where the average taxpayer cost of care for each inmate is $31,286 per year.

It’s a cruel reality for many people of faith in the general population that the freedom of religion may be most voraciously protected, and nurtured for growth, by our prison system, while our general population culture convenes daily to sanitize our schools, stadiums, courthouses, statehouses, and public squares from reference to any religious beliefs whatsoever.

And even though the U.S. Supreme Court has declared that Americans have a right to hold religious beliefs and not be forced by the government to act in ways that violate those beliefs, we nonetheless are being restricted to fewer and fewer venues to act in ways that support our beliefs – from reading the Bible in schools to even saying “God Bless You,” whenever someone sneezes.

If religion can help create more peaceful prisons and significantly reduce recidivism by connecting inmates spiritually, and making them far less likely to hurt others or to do wrong, then it seems that every cultural effort to disconnect the rest of us spiritually would have the opposite effect – making us all more likely to hurt others or do wrong.

There are lots of folks out there who will read this column and begin pointing out the fallacies of embracing religion in the same spirit as our prisons do. They will also cite Constitutional and other legal arguments, one after another, on why it cannot be done the same.

Legally, they may be right. But all I know is this, in the words Frederick Douglas: “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men,” and I can’t figure out for the life of me, why a minority of Americans are so hell bent on doing it the hard way, and making us all do hard time, in the process.

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