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.