Corcoran prison inmates win access case to send Bible
Ripple effect expected statewide

by Ashly McGlone

CORCORAN  Calif. — When an inmate at Corcoran State Prison in California requested a softbound Bible from Jesus Christ Prison Ministry, he didn’t expect the simple request to lead to a lawsuit.

The ministry attempted to send the Bible to the inmate, but officials at Corcoran State Prison said that all materials intended for inmates must come from approved vendors. Since Jesus Christ Prison Ministry didn’t sell materials but rather gave them for free, the religious literature was denied and deemed contraband. 

Two other inmates came forward expressing frustration with similar situations.

On behalf of the ministry and three inmates, Pacific Justice Institute wrote two letters to the prison requesting that the policy be changed, to no avail.

Pacific Justice’s Chief Counsel Kevin Snider said they chose to intervene because their mission is to “create the legal conditions for people of faith and religious organizations to engage in their ministry.”

He pursued the case arguing that the free exercise of religion clause found in the First Amendment, as well as the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act were obstructed.  

While prison officials originally intended to prohibit the receipt of religious materials, the settlement resulted in inmates receiving religious materials with greater ease.

After the two-year battle, Sacramento-based federal Magistrate Dale Drozd sided with the plaintiffs. A final settlement was reached without monetary compensation on March 5, and the case was closed.

According to Pacific Justice Institute, the settlement is significant beyond the plaintiffs because it “establishes a pilot program for delivery of religious materials which, if successful, will be implemented statewide,” its news release said.

As a result, literature specifically requested by an inmate must go through screening, but can be sent to that individual. Similar to programs found nationwide, the “pilot program will have a trial period of six months, ending in a review by the Department of Corrections in council with PJI.

Vital ministries
Snider said the importance of inmate access to religious material cannot be underestimated.

“Whether someone is religious or not is beside the point,” Snider said. “It is in everyone’s self-interest to allow these things. It is important to society as a whole to exercise their religious beliefs.”

Many churches actively facilitate prison ministries.

Religious services team leader Laurie Harrison, from Calvary Chapel Living Hope in Oceanside, Calif. has done prison ministry for 12 years. Harrison leads two of the 14 weekly services at the Vista Detention facility. Attendance averages seven to 15 female inmates. Services usually include worship, prayer, and end with a message.   

Harrison has experienced opposition from prison officials before.

“Every once in a while (an official) will say ‘Why do you come here?  … But then we see some come to church once they’re out and they have really made a change,” Harrison said.

Inmates who attend the services usually “become less of a hassle for the guards and less violent,” she said.

Inside the yards
Thomas Heyer, director of prison ministries at Shadow Mountain Community Church in El Cajon, Calif., said that the impact ministries have had on the inmates they work with is, “one of the reasons we have been welcomed into so many facilities.”

Heyer oversees ministries at seven different facilities in San Diego County. The goal of these outreaches is to meet a wide range of needs, from pregnant convicted women through the Family Foundation, to inmates who attend firefighting camp at McCain Honor Camp.

The spiritual core of all of the ministries Shadow Mountain is involved with, according to Heyer, centers on Isaiah 42:6-7 which commands care of the captives.

The Rock Church, in San Diego, does its prison ministry primarily at Donovan State prison. Yard Five pastor Roger Ziegler said their three Sunday services average 120 to 160 inmates combined.

Kairos International Prison Ministry is another organization through which Ziegler has served. That ministry also works with families to help in transitioning back into society. Kairos meetings typically consist of a four-day weekend event twice a year.

“God has given us a message of hope and God has given us the responsibility of taking this message to the homeless shelters, and streets, and hospitals, and prisons, and places where people need to hear there is hope,” Ziegler said.

Protecting the duty
According to the Department of Corrections Risk Management Division, the rate of felon parolees returned to California prisons in recent years averages 60 percent. According to a 2002 study cited by Prison Fellowship, faith-based programs lower that recidivism rate to just 16 percent.

While statistics show that faith-based groups are one of the most effective avenues for preventing recidivism, many cases are still being filed in an attempt to prevent ministries from reaching out.

“Dozens of similar situations across the country have been brought to our attention, but we are not currently in litigation with any of them,” Snider said. “We don’t want to sue them, but regrettably if prisons don’t change their policy, we will be forced to sue them.” 

A June 8 news release by the Christian Legal Society and the Alliance Defense Fund, highlighted a similar issue with their client—the Firm Foundation.

According to the release, the Firm Foundation is a faith-based program in Pennsylvania, “that provides construction skills, life skills, and mentoring to incarcerated persons.”

For two years, a group backed by the Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State tried to argue that the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment had been violated because the Firm Foundation was partially funded by federal grants. In addition to all claims being dropped, no compensation was paid by defendants.

This outcome is seen as another victory for prison ministries.  

The impact of the PJI case settlement has the potential to reach each of the projected 170,000 thousand inmates currently in California. The fewer inmates who return to prison will also mean the taxpayers benefit, saving more than $40,000 to house a single inmate annually.  

“We hope people see the logic of allowing faith-based groups to help prisoners,” Snider said.

Published, July 2007

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