A Christian inmate prays in his cell, Minnesota Correction Facility. Serge J-F. Levy©2015

The Hidden Culture Of Religion Behind Bars

How evangelists from obscure religions use the vulnerability of inmates to add followers.

One of the first things you’re asked when you enter prison is to check the box next to the religion you identify with. Your options include all of the usual suspects: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism. But you’d also see a laundry list of lesser-know theologies like Odinism, Rastafarianism and Wicca. Turns out, prison is a hot recruitment spot for faiths you rarely (if ever) come into contact with or hear about outside of prison walls.

Prison yard morning prayer service, Louisiana State Penitentiary (aka “Angola”), Angola, La. Serge J-F. Levy©2015

Turning to Religion

Discovering the religious makeup of inmates is not an easy task. While the U.S. Bureau of Justice reports regularly on the age, gender and racial/ethnic composition of the prison population, it very rarely reports on the religious affiliation of inmates. Yet it seems as if everyone wants to believe in something in prison. In fact, fewer than 1% of all prison inmates are atheist. That reveals more than just the prevalence of religion in prison: It highlights the impact religion has on a human being locked behind bars. And that impact is not always spiritual. Yes, religion can serve as a rehabilitative force for many inmates, but it is also a form of escape, as well as a source of an almost gang-like community providing inmates protection and camaraderie.

A Jewish inmate prays in the corner of the prison synagogue, Green Haven Correctional Facility,Stormville, N.Y. Serge J-F. Levy©2015

Recruiting Followers Behind Bars

One of the reasons that more obscure religious groups spend time and energy recruiting inmates as followers is because each new follower gained is far more valuable than the larger religions. For example, there are millions of Muslims in the United States, so one new convert to Islam is a drop of water in a giant ocean. But for the pagan religion Odinism (aka Asatru), there are only around 20,000 followers in the entire country. One new convert to Odinism represents a huge win in boosting their follower numbers.

What ends up happening is religions with a limited number of worshippers like Moorish Science Temple, Druids, Satanists, Wiccans and Jedis (yes, Jedis, like in Star Wars) spend a significant amount of time and energy trying to recruit followers in prison. Individuals in prison are often looking to get back on the right path, and faith often offers them something concrete to subscribe to that will help them lead a better life. You can see why jails are a good place for small faiths to recruit.

Inmates baptized in a laundry cart filled with water, Minnesota Correction Facility, Stillwater, Minn. Serge J-F. Levy©2015

3 Religions Making Their Way Through Prisons

1. Wicca

Often called “The Craft” or “The Old Religion”, Wicca is a form of paganism, which spread to the U.S. in the early 1960s. While Wicca is often compared to witchcraft, Mother Earth Industries, a Wiccan ministry which released a guide to practicing in prison, notes that “Wicca is a religion and a life path. All Wiccans are witches, but not all witches are Wiccan.” Their beliefs include that the creator, or the Goddess, is female, who is the soul of nature that gives life to the universe, as well as a belief in reincarnation. Additionally, Wicca considers the elements, Earth, Air, Fire, and Water, as well as Spirit — to be holy, and they are treated as gods. Additionally, Wiccans believe in magic as a natural force (comparable to gravity), and it is up to each practitioner to use this magic responsibly. Wicca is appealing to prisoners because there is no evil, and there is no God who is watching you, so mistakes can be made up for in this life or in the next life. The religion includes spells, altars to the goddess and god as well as elements, and the idea of “three fold”, which is similar to karma. The federal government has accepted Wicca as a legitimate religion, meaning that the practice of Wicca in prison is protected by the first amendment.

2. Moorish Science Temple

Founded in 1925, The Moorish Science Temple believes that Noble Drew Ali, the Divine Prophet, was born in North Carolina in 1886. The Divine Prophet was was sent to Moors of America, who were at the time called Negroes, in order to save them from their sins. The Divine Prophet claims that African Americans in the U.S. were not from African countries, but were rather Asiatic, meaning that African Americans originally descended from the Moors and therefore were originally Islamic. The Moorish Science Temple Of America is a strand of Islam, so they pray from the Quran, practice similar dietary laws, as well as pray 5 times a day as Muslims do. A document explaining the practice of The Moorish Science Temple in the U.S. notes that all pacting prisoner should have a Fez (red color only), Holy Koran, Wallet-size picture of Noble Drew Ali, Circle Seven medallion and chain, and two small lapel pins, although the prison system only allows the pins and fezzes to be worn during actual prayer. Additionally, The Moorish Science Temple has been carefully watched by the FBI, with fears of extremism growing in jail and connections to the Nation Of Islam being cited.

3. Odinism

Also known as Astrau, Odinism is a Norse Pagan religion. Odinism is polytheistic, believing in many gods, and is seen as an indigenous religion practiced by the practised by ancient civilizations such as the Angles, Saxons and Jutes. The gods worshipped include Scandinavian pre-Christian gods, including Odin, Thor, Freyr, Freyja, and Heimdall among others. Odinist mythology explains that not only are there many gods but there are also many ‘worlds’, or dimensions of reality. The religion itself is based on the celebration of nature and a reading of mythology, and the religion has spread quickly in prison. But, behind bars, “many prison wardens have long regarded Odinism as the religious arm of white supremacist prison gangs.” But, regardless of some extremist interpretations, The Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that Odinist inmates can wear Thor’s Hammer pendants under their jumpsuits and gain visits from Odinist religious leaders.

Religion’s Entrance Into the Prison System

There are 1,474 professional chaplains working in state prisons across the country. Of these chaplains, 85% identify themselves as Christians, most of whom are Protestants.

States don’t just allow members of the clergy into prisons, they actually hire clergy members to go into prisons. They hire priests, protestant ministers, rabbis, as well as Muslim imams to support the inmates on their religious path. These are essentially the “official” religions of the prison system, because the state specifically seeks out these religions to be a resource to inmates. But America is a place of religious freedom, and technically any religion has the right to come into prison. This means that any religion, from Satanism to Buddhism, has recruiters who spread their ideas throughout prisons and engage with inmates, despite not being sanctioned or paid by the state.

Chaplain Joanne Torma ministers with an inmate in a segregation ward, State Correctional Institution, Muncy, Pa.. Serge J-F. Levy©2015

Religious Extremism in Prison

It’s important to note that there really isn’t enough data or information about prisoner radicalization to say definitively how much of a threat religious extremism is in prison. Almost one-third of prison chaplains say that religious extremism is pretty common among inmates. But few chaplains say that the religious extremism they see poses a security threat to the prison facility.

However, we have seen multiple incidents of former prisoners committing acts of terrorism after being released.

  • El Rukn: Gang leader Jeff Fort from Chicago converted to Islam while incarcerated in the 60's. He went on to found a group called El Rukn which carried out attacks on U.S. police stations, government facilities, military bases and passenger airplanes in the 80's in conjunction with the government of Libya.
  • Covenant, Sword and Arm of the Lord (CSA): James Ellison founded the extremist Christian group CSA when he was in jail. After Ellison got out, he recruited for CSA and established a compound for his followers. Later, law enforcement raided that compound and found homemade landmines and U.S. Army anti-tank rockets. They also found cyanide that CSA was planning to use to poison the city’s water supply.
  • Jami’iy yat Ul-Islam Is Saheeh (Assembly of Authentic Islam): While in New Folsom State Prison, this group planned an attack on government and Jewish targets in California. The leader, Kevin James, advocated jihad against the U.S. government and supporters of Israel.

Important takeaway: Radicalization is not unique to Islam and it is not a recent phenomenon. It’s still the exception rather than the rule for prisoners.

The answer lies within the loyalty and personal attention religion can provide, two aspects which are not easy to find in prison, alongside the susceptibility to nonconventional religious ideas. With 75 percent of state prison inmates and 59 percent of federal inmates not having a high school diploma, the answer to why prisoners are so susceptible to new strands of religions becomes clear.

Additionally, the rate of religious extremism in maximum security prisons is notably higher than extremism in lower security prisons, suggesting a higher susceptibility towards extreme ideology in more dangerous inmates. Expressed in forms of racial intolerance or prejudice, religious extremism in prison is often used to spread ideas of racial superiority, hostility towards the LGBTQ community, or negative views of the opposite sex.

Congress passed a law in 2004 called the Intelligence Reform Terrorism Prevention Act that established the Information Sharing Environment (ISE) which collects information critical to tracking the radicalization of prisoners.

Chaplain Greg Skrypek with inmate at Minnesota Correctional Facility-Oak Park Heights super maximum security prison. Serge J-F. Levy©2015

The High Rate of Conversion

While entrance into the prison system does not dictate a newfound need for religion, the conversion rate in prison is extremely high. In fact, former prisoner Daniel Genis noted that “inmates changed their religions so often that the state imposed a limit of one change per year.” The religion whose conversion game seems to be the strongest is Islam, as estimates suggest that 35,000–40,000 inmates convert to Islam each year.

“Inmates changed their religions so often that the state imposed a limit of one change per year.” — Daniel Genis, former prisoner

Analysts believe this rise in conversion to Islam revolves around an interesting combination of African American culture blended with the religion of Islam. Popular African American figures including Malcolm X, H. Rap Brown, and Mike Tyson all took pride in their conversion to Islam. Conversion to Islam also brings protection from prison gangs, as well as religious perks such as better food due to dietary restrictions and opting out of work on Fridays to pray.

Sunday Mass, Green Haven Correctional Facility. Serge J-F. Levy©2015

Where We Go From Here

Regardless of your opinion about religion in prison and religious freedom, the one thing we absolutely need for us to accurately evaluate the state of things is more information and data on religion in prison. Despite the concern which exists about the development of extremist ideology behind bars, there is little law enforcement can do to confront this rise of extremism, particularly because much of the conversion is for religious purposes. Regardless of extremism that has spread in the prison system, 92% of prison chaplains around the U.S., who have spent significant time with inmates are proponents of “dealing with non-violent, first-time offenders through alternative sentencing (such as community service or mandatory substance-abuse counseling) rather than prison terms.”