Religious Rights of Inmates in Utah

Inmates in Utah lose many of their freedoms temporarily while they serve their time behind bars, yet many religious rights of inmates continue to be upheld throughout their incarceration.

Freedom of religion

Religious Rights

Photo by: John Flannery

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; ( . . . ).” It is the right of every person on American soil to practice the religion of their choosing. Although being incarcerated means the temporary loss of many rights, inmates are still given their religious freedom as long as the practice of their religion does not put others in danger.

UDC Handbook

The Utah Department of Corrections Inmate Orientation Handbook states: “Inmates in the Utah State Prison will be allowed access to religious services, except when the inmate’s behavior poses a safety threat to the religious counselor or others attending the religious service.” The handbook also explains that depending on the inmate’s security level, they “may attend scheduled religious services in the chapel” and “inmates will also have access to religious writings unless such writings advocate actions that could present a clear and present danger to the security of the institution.”

Outward expressions of devotion

With the vast range of religions out there, there are many that require outward expressions of devotion beyond weekly services and reading material. Sometimes, these outward expressions conflict with what is typically permissible in prison. Most inmates are required to dress a certain way, have set schedules, and are given the same diet as the rest of the prison population. Fortunately, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) protects many inmates from boundaries that would violate their religious rights.

Religious allowances for inmates

Some of the religious allowances for inmates include:

• Necklaces and jewelry- Many prison systems do not allow jewelry of any kind and even limit what visitors are allowed to wear into the facilities. Regarding religious jewelry for inmates, the UDC notes “medallions or ornaments may be worn based on the inmate’s classification and housing assignments. Inmates may obtain an item by requesting it through one of the chaplains.”

• Religious food restrictions- Some religions have food restrictions that prohibit practicing members from partaking of certain items. Jewish inmates and those practicing Islam are forbidden from eating foods that are not kosher such as pork. Hindu inmates don’t eat beef products as the cow is worshipped in their religion. Utah Department of Corrections offers meals to inmates that coincide with their religious food restrictions.

• Rugs and clothing- Although inmates are required to wear prison approved clothing and use only approved bedding, items such as Prayer Rugs or Kippahs and Yakamas are often available for purchase through prison commissary.
• Long hair- Inmates in the prison system are expected to keep their grooming and appearance clean which in some states involves male inmates having short haircuts. Utah prisons do not have a history of enforcing length restrictions on hair and offer added reassurance for those such as Native Americans, whose long locks are of religious value. Utah Code 64-13-40 (6) states “The department may not require a native American inmate to cut the inmate’s hair if it conflicts with the inmate’s traditional native American religious beliefs.

• Beards- in 2015, a Muslim inmate by the name of Gregory Holt, or Abdul Muhammad, went before the Supreme Court to fight an Arkansas prison law preventing him and others practicing Islam the right of growing a half inch beard in accordance with their religion. The Arkansas facility argued that a half inch beard could allow an inmate to transport contraband into or around the prison. According to the United States Department of Justice, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Holt and “refused to accept that the beard ban was necessary to prevent smuggling of contraband, in light of the fact that hiding places such as hair longer than ¼ inch, moustaches, and clothing were already available.”

Know your religious rights

Inmates are encouraged to discuss their religious rights as soon as possible after incarceration to avoid the unnecessary limits of their freedom of religious practice. For more information, contact the Utah Department of Corrections.

Religious Freedom of Inmates

Inmates serving time behind bars for crimes committed lose many freedoms until their release; religious freedom should not be one of them.

Freedom of religion

Photo by: JouWatch

The First Amendment to the Constitution protects the religious freedom of inmates as well as any all individuals in the country, stating: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; ( . . . ). Religious freedom is a right, not a privilege, and should not be taken away because a person is imprisoned. Even if a person has been sentenced to spend the rest of their life behind bars, their religious freedoms should remain intact.

Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act

According to the United States Department of Justice regarding the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act; “they require that state and local institutions not place arbitrary or unnecessary restrictions on religious practice. “Institutions” include prisons, jails, pretrial detention facilities, juvenile facilities, and institutions housing persons with disabilities when these facilities controlled by or provide services on behalf of State or local governments. “

Inmate’s rights to religion

Religious freedom of inmates comprises of more than merely allowing a person to be a member of a certain religion. Religious freedom can include:

• Specialty foods. Many religious customs require participants to refrain from eating specific types of foods or to limit them during certain times. Prisons and other facilities try to accommodate religious inmates as much as possible. The Hindu religion discourages eating meats and strictly forbids the eating of cows as they are considered sacred in their country. Most persons practicing Hindu require a vegan diet. Those practicing Judaism are not to eat pork or shellfish and any meat eaten must be prepared in a specific manner. Since some religions have rules regarding food, those persons are either able to choose different meals or those foods are not offered at all at the facilities. Additionally, if there are restrictions on times an inmate can eat (such as during Ramadan), the facility should make accommodations for those instances as well.

• Facial hair. In the infamous case of Holt v. Hobbs, a Muslim inmate was originally denied by the Arkansas Department of Corrections the right to have a half inch beard; something that is required for his faith. The Supreme Court ruled that denying Holt to have a beard in accordance with his religion violated his religious freedom, and overruled Arkansas’ guidelines regarding facial hair for religious persons. As for other hair styles such as dreadlocks for Rastafarians or long braided hair for Native Americans, it differs from state to state. Those who have qualms about hair restrictions related to religion can file an official complaint.

• Books and other religious items. One of the main items that a religious inmate is allowed is reading material specific to their religion. This can include major religious books such as the Bible, the Torah, or the Koran as well as all other religious literature. Other items that may be allowed include prayer rugs, crosses, and religious headgear. Since items may pose a risk, not all facilities allow them while others require inmates to purchase new items from authorized retailers or the prison commissary.

• Religious practices. Inmates are usually permitted to practice their religion in the way they see fit as long as it does not endanger the other inmates or cause a major disruption to the facility. These allowed practices may include Sunday or Saturday worship for many Christian faiths; Salat, the ritual prayer performs multiple times a day by those practicing Islam; and weekly or annual rituals such as Sabbath or Passover that the Jewish religion partakes in.

Reduce recidivism

Inmates who have religious affiliations should be allowed to continue their religious practices while incarcerated as studies have shown the recidivism rate increases far more when religion is involved than when another type of secular learning or group is participated in. According to the Department of Justice, ““These provisions recognize the crucial role religion plays in the rehabilitation of prisoners and in the lives of those who are institutionalized”. Anyone who believes their religious freedom is being obstructed should consult with an attorney regarding their options on filing a formal complaint.