Chaplains in Illinois want to set captives free.
One answer to prison recidivism, the chaplains say, is to provide spiritual resources for inmates to transform themselves while incarcerated.
“You got a lot of people in the Bible that spent time in prison,” said Rev. Greg Livingston, pastor of Austin’s Mandell United Methodist Church, and an advocate with Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.
Livingston cited Joseph, Daniel and Paul as his biblical examples.
“[They were] confined by their circumstance but they were able to transcend that,” he said.
But there are practical hurdles for prisoners to overcome, not least of which are the conditions surrounding their imprisonment, Livingston warned. “There is also a reality that ‘Maybe you ain’t Paul. You’re not Joseph. You just got locked up. You in jail.'”
Christian and Muslim ministers, and policy experts examined the role of religion inside prison at a town hall last Wednesday called “Faith behind Bars,” sponsored by the De Paul University Islamic world studies program.
A recent Pew Center on the States study showed that 1 in 100 adult Americans are in prison. That figure makes the United States the world’s leader in incarnated people as a percentage of its population. Illinois currently has 45,000 adults in prison.
For one former inmate, finding religion was finding the best part of himself.
Rafi Peterson is an outreach worker and youth advocate for Inner-City Muslim Action Network, a sponsor for the town hall series. He works with transitional housing programs for just released inmates. Peterson also holds a “movie night” at a community center to keep kids off the streets.
But Peterson was not always on the giving end of social services. He was imprisoned in 1985, convicted of first-degree murder. Peterson was sent to Pontiac Correction Center where he says a friendship with a fellow inmate, also imprisoned for murder, saved him.
“He was a humble brother in the midst of the madness,” Peterson recalled of his friend, a weightlifting, Buddha-quoting Muslim who lead him to embrace Islam. “[He] used to tell me I was obnoxious with pugnacious behaviors, and I used to have to go get a dictionary to find out what he was calling me. He would tell us to ‘elevate the conversation.'”
Peterson said Islam taught him what not to do while incarcerated. “In Islam, you’re not supposed to be homosexual, no drugs and no alcohol. We used to tell the brothers in prison that if you’re not engaging in any of those things, then that’s 90 percent of the work.
“Then you start working on your own self-discipline,” Peterson added. “Islam taught me not to let my environment dictate to me. Men dictate to their environment.”
Peterson’s transformation is one reason why ministers reach out to prisoners.
Imam Al-Hajj Talib, a prison chaplain in New York state said, “Life becomes devoid of hope. We offer some degree of solace, of comfort.
“[Ministers] who are working to serve as agents of almighty God,” he added,” can help prisoners regain a degree of their humanity . [Prisoners] come to religious services to feel human, and this is important because the system by nature de-humanized the incarcerated.”
DePaul law professor and criminal defense attorney Cynthia Roseberry, however, explained that an inmate’s constitutional right to freely exercise their religion is often tampered with inside prison facilities.
“Prison officials know that if you can insert safety as a reason to deny this freedom to assemble together and practice your religion, then the [U.S.] Supreme Court is going to go with you,” Roseberry said. “What we have is a warden deciding what the First Amendment is.”