Minn. prison labors to meet religious needs

ST. CLOUD, Minn. (AP) – Russell Simmons was 35 years old in the summer of 2006 and facing five years behind bars. Five years away from family, friends and the life he used to know in Sauk Rapids.

With nowhere to turn, he looked upward for support. He found God.

“If you sit and think about everything that is going on outside the walls, then your prison sentence seems twice as long,” Simmons said. “I put everything that was going on outside the walls in the Lord’s hands and prayed that God would take care of it.”

Simmons’ story isn’t unique. Many men and women lean heavily on their faith in prisons and jails around the world. At the Minnesota Correctional Facility-St. Cloud, that devotion means the facility works hard to deal with a variety of backgrounds, the St. Cloud Times reports.

“Our perspective and philosophy is that we try to accommodate all faiths,” said Bill Dornbush, religious resource coordinator at the facility.

The prison has about 1,000 inmates, half identifying themselves as Christian. About 50 practice Native American faith rituals, 38 identified as Muslim, 16 report they practice other religions, two identify as Pagans and two report to be Jewish.

For Dornbush and others, religious holidays bring the most challenges. For example, the Muslim holiday of Ramadan features daily fasting and can present a particular set of obstacles for inmates and prison workers.

“We spend a lot of time up front preparing,” Dornbush said. “Offenders have to sign an agreement to show their willingness to participate in the Ramadan fast. We provide them their pray schedule for the early morning and late evening, and between that time (mandated by their own faith), they are not to ingest anything.”

Marabelle Morgan, the prison’s corrections program director, has worked with religious services closely for more than 10 years. She said while prison workers aren’t religious police but work hard to make sure those who take part in Ramadan adhere to an agreed-upon regimen.

“The agreement that the offender has to sign says I’m going to accept the two meals that you provide for Ramadan and that (he) is not entitled to any other institutional food,” Morgan said. “We actually give them extra food in these other two meals so if they take extra food that’s not in the Ramadan menu then they could get disciplined because basically they’re taking more than their share.”

The holiday also can present a different set of challenges, Dornbush said. For example, the prison has no air conditioning, so it can get hot at a time when those observing Ramadan are going without food or water. If fasting begins to harm an inmate’s health, Dornbush said, it’s the prison’s job to step in and make sure inmates eat or drink enough to survive.

Faith observances call for weekly meetings, biweekly sweat-lodge sessions for Native American offenders and other regular meetings with inmates. Religious days are spread throughout the year; the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were prominent in September. With all that goes on, the process of accommodating religious needs is too much for Dornbush alone, much less the facility, to manage on their own.

The prison can’t spend money on religious items. Morgan said that makes volunteer help pivotal, and the prison connects them with inmates. The prison currently has a pool of 38 different groups of volunteers, 340 people in all.

June Redmond, who volunteers with her husband as part of the group Residents Encounter Christ, said volunteers see the difference it makes.

“I know that at some point in time these men will get out and be our neighbors and if we have an opportunity to bring them change, I need to come here,” Redmond said. “And I want to come here. It’s been life-changing for me also. It’s just a blessing. They’re looking for something, they know their way didn’t work so they want change ... then they find out that we are no different. We have issues, too, and (we work on) how we can deal with them.”

Teresa Nelson, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, said finding volunteers for prisoners of a minority faith is one of prisons’ biggest challenges.

“You might be confined to doing your own religious ceremonies in your cell instead of having a group to practice with,” she said. “It shouldn’t depend on how popular your religion is.”

Nelson said she estimates the ACLU deals with about 10-15 complaints a year regarding underrepresented religions. She noted that federal law says a prison can’t impose on a prisoner’s ability to worship as they please.

For those serving time like Simmons did, whatever a facility can do seems to make a difference.

“I got involved in this faith-based stuff is when I was in Benton County,” said Simmons, who has since been released and now attends school and works nights. “I became a born-again Christian and it just kind of carried through the rest of my incarceration. I took advantage of my time and did different studies. I thought it was very important, because it gave me something to focus on instead of focusing on what was going on.”

Having a purpose inside the prison walls can be a key factor in keeping structure outside once a prisoner is released, Dornbush said. He believes those looking to make a change understand that well.

An average of 2,979 prisoners attended religious programming during the last two quarters this year at the St. Cloud prison.

“Some people talk about jailhouse conversions and things like that, and yes there may be some of that, but having the experience is something to build on,” Dornbush said. “It gives them a sense of meaning and direction.”