Religion in prisons: more than meets the eye

Going into a prison to witness to the convicted can be a real challenge when it comes to dealing with murderers or rapists. Because of this fact, there are organizations in each state founded to serve the purpose of reaching out to these men and women.

We call them chaplains.

There are chaplain groups for all religions — after all, modern America is very much an equal opportunity country. However, last year Virginia gave a $25,000 grant to the Muslim Chaplain Services of Virginia, a nonprofit organization, in order for them to reach out to the quickly-growing Muslim community behind bars. Since this deal was the first of its kind, the result, as one would expect, has been received under less than favorable conditions.

But the question remains: why?

The Chaplain Service of the Churches of Virginia (a Protestant organization) has the full $780,000 contract with the state. While it may not have received a special, individualized grant, it still receives the full contract in the area. Is it really fair to be nitpicky because another religious group receives a grant that is one-thirtieth the size received by Christian organizations?

At least, this was my initial response to the issue. I found it absurd how quickly the Christian community — a religion built upon love and forgiveness — takes on a mob mentality at the mere mention of Islam.

An interview with someone with considerable experience with inmates, however, has shown me the truth of the matter. Mark Lasko is a Liberty alum who has served as the director of mental health in multiple prisons in multiple states.

According to a study conducted by the Virginia Department of Corrections, 27 percent of inmates will return to prison within two years of their release.

Considering this fact, why shouldn’t we support religious instruction to prisoners? Wouldn’t giving those men a moral code at least better their standing in life, even if it isn’t a sense of morality learned from the Bible?

“A large majority of the inmates admit that they used to be religious, that there’s an absence in their lives since moving away from it. In fact, many of them were active in Christianity when they were young, but felt like they grew away from it. After meeting with therapists, a surprising number of the inmates realize this,” Lasko said.

As the interview drew to a close, Lasko said something that has completely changed my view on the prison systems and, more importantly, the use of religion in those institutions.

“Muslims often run the prisons by forming gangs. They believe that once you become a Muslim, you can’t change your faith. It is a violent belief system, even in the prison system. Christianity pushes love, peace, and non-violence, and all Muslims have is anger. Islam is the fastest growing religion in the prison system, because people want to join these gangs in order to protect themselves,” Lasko said.

The picture painted is not at all a pretty one. Things are always much more menacing when people joins groups in order to protect themselves from those groups without fully comprehending what they’re getting themselves into.

When you give dangerous, volatile humans the weapon of an antagonistic religion, you arm them with the ability to threaten and coerce others into doing what they want them to do simply out of fear. While it is certainly not politically correct to refuse to fund other religious chaplain groups, the biggest question to ask is what the chaplains are going to teach those men. Is it living in peace and loving their neighbors, or a religion based on fear of a harsh and judgmental god?

“If you’re pushing equal religious rights, what next? Books for satanic worship or wiccan? At some point, we need to draw the line, and it should be that unless a religion promotes peace and love, especially to men and women who are prone to anger and violence, it should not only not receive funding, but should simply not be promoted in places as violent as jails and prisons,” Lasko said.

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