Freedom of Religion in Prison


It’s called freedom of religion, folks.  That means you have the right to worship as you please, even if you’re in prison, even if you’re Muslim, and even if you’re Taliban.

Prison is horrible.  More horrible than anyone who has never been in or near one can imagine.  I know.  I worked inside prisons, back when someone might have had at least a little respect for credentials like mine.  This was before they started over-disciplining doctors and forcing their asses out of those august institutions in favor of cheaper folks, like nurse practitioners.

There were psychologists — and lots of them.  A department chief once told me I was forbidden to use neurolinguistic programming because it was really hypnosis and I was robbing the patient of free will.  If you ask me, his real problem was that I could do something he could not and that I made the patient feel good.  It had been explained to me more than once — by people who spent most of their careers working in prisons — that prisoners were not supposed to feel good.  This, of course, made no sense to a reasonable health care professional like me.  One prison doctor told me religion was big in prison because it was, quite frankly, the only thing that could get an inmate to feel good. By the way, I never worked in a women’s prison.  Somehow the great Golden State of California thought having me around was “good” for men.  I was once told by one of those psychologists that having me around as a female role model would help the male prisoners remain heterosexual. That sounds like the kind of non-academic, unproven assertion that runs science and medicine in most of these parts.

Despite all this, one of the main reasons I left were the medication errors.  The final straw was when a general physician found room to add an Rx for Phenobarbital above my signature.  The chief of medicine told me this was no big deal and saw no reason to discipline him.  I did the only thing I could — I started drawing delightful creative squiggles to fill up any space over my signature; and soon I was gone. The most frightened I have ever been in prison was walking by a yard with about 200 Muslims on their knees, in prayer, facing Mecca.  I am a Jewish girl, weaned on stories — real or not — about what has been said and done about Jews by these folks.  They do seem to attack Israelis or Jews in other countries a lot. The rabbi, who ministered to all three Jewish inmates, admitted to me he did not feel very comfortable either.  But America, including its prisons, had promised us freedom of religion and we really had to like it or lump it.  I knew damned well he was right, of course, but it was reassuring to know the visceral discomfort was shared.

I talked to the Imam, the Islam spiritual leader, who seemed like a nice little guy and shrugged his shoulders a lot.  He said many of his folks were of African American origin, new converts, and he tried to “keep them cool” and transmit the “peace of Allah.”  Sounded like pretty good stuff to me. Religion is easy to pervert.  I don’t want that to happen and was relieved that he did not either.  This was a good counter phobic move.  I was proud of myself.  If all these muscled guys were listing to this little bitty Imam, something good was happening.

Flashback to Northern France, where they told me you could only love, hate, and/or make jokes about people who were close to you or just like you.  This was why the northern French had lots of Belgian jokes.  Example heard all too frequently; why do Belgian women have square nipples?  To train their children to eat French fries.  They are really Belgian, by the way.

Getting back to religion, the “Abrahamic” religions include both Judaism and Islam.  Their rules, in the purest sense, sound a hell of a lot like the way the more orthodox Jews live.  Yes, I will admit, I have dipped into a little Koran. Another flashback, this time to Oklahoma and an African American patient who had been a prison convert to Islam.  He told me, “It’s really tough.  You aren’t supposed to drink.  You get stuff at the store, or have someone else get it for you, and you take it home.  And you can’t sleep with a woman real long before you got to marry her.” I changed the subject, grateful I was not a religious counselor.

Loveable — and mostly Jewish — ACLU lawyers protect religious dissenters.  When one group’s rights are violated, they say, everyone’s freedoms are at stake.  This is freedom to worship as you please, America.  This is Thomas Jefferson, and it is FDR and the famous four freedoms that became Normal Rockwell paintings.  You can’t touch me, o Christian Americans, and we can’t touch American Muslims either.




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