Updated: August 27, 2010 at 12:00 am
Howie Close loved to fight, and in 1990 at the age of 17, he and his brother, in an unprovoked attack, used clubs and their fists to brutally beat six men in Denver.
“I was just a mean, wicked person,” said Close, who has served 20 years within the Colorado Department of Corrections for taking part in the beatings, and will be released next year.
While in prison, Close became a Christian, regularly attending chapel services and seeking counsel from Protestant chaplains. On Wednesday, Close led Bible study in a nondescript room called the chapel at Territorial Correctional Facility in Cañon City.
“It saved my life,” Close said of the Christian prison ministry. “This chapel is a safe haven. When you come here, it’s like you leave prison at the door.”
By federal law, Colorado jails and prisons must provide reasonable accommodations so inmates can practice their religion. Within the DOC, 21,000 inmates receive counsel from 1,450 religious volunteers representing 33 faiths and denominations.
Volunteers and senior facilitators specialize in one faith or denomination, but they also counsel inmates with other beliefs.
“I wear two hats — a chaplain hat and a pastor hat,” said the Rev. Dan Matsche, senior chaplain at Territorial. “As a chaplain, I facilitate all faiths. I wear my pastor hat on Sunday morning.”
Senior facilitators like Matsche, a Protestant chaplain, are paid not by the correctional facility but by nonprofits. Matsche is employed by Good News Jail & Prison Ministry headquartered in Virginia.
At the El Paso County jail, 73 volunteers representing Protestantism, Catholicism, Judaism, Buddhism and other faiths facilitate programs for about 1,300 inmates. A single room at the jail is used for the various services. Because the average time inmates spend at the El Paso County jail is only 23 days, faith accommodations aren’t as extensive as they are within the DOC, where prisoners might be housed for decades.
Until the 2000 passage of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, freedom of worship in U.S. prisons and jails was a much debated topic. Some Native American inmates wanted to use peyote, a hallucinogenic, in their religious ceremonies. Some within the pagan faith Wicca requested a knife for a ceremony.
The act dramatically reduced grievances involving freedom of worship, said Paula Presley, sheriff’s detentions bureau chief.
The act states that, while prisons and jails must accommodate inmates in their religious practices, requests that create a security issue or are unreasonable can be rejected.
Use of an illegal drug or sharp objects for worship is unreasonable and a security hazard, said Martin Anthony, a volunteer within DOC who specializes in facilitating Wiccan ceremonies.
“The department allows what inmates need to worship, not necessarily what they want,” Anthony said.
Typically, that’s enough for inmates in DOC and the El Paso County jail. “We don’t get a lot of grievances because we are pretty accommodating,” Presley said.
At Territorial, the chapel room is used for services by Christians on Sunday, Muslims on Friday and Buddhists on Saturday. Another multipurpose room is reserved for services for Jews on Friday night, Mormons on Sunday afternoon and Jehovah’s Witnesses on Wednesday. Within an outdoor caged area, Native Americans worship in a sweat lodge Saturday morning, and pagans worship and perform ceremonies at other times.
Nothing is perfect. Muslim Lamar Harold, serving a 16-year sentence for drug trafficking in Denver, would prefer an ornate mosque to worship in and an imam available most days.
But Harold is allowed to perform his five daily prayers even when they interrupt work duty. He talks with a volunteer imam by phone once a week. He’s studying Arabic so he can read the Quran in its original language.
During Ramadan, which ends Sept. 10, the prison adjusted his and other Muslims’ meal schedule so they can eat before dawn and after dusk while fasting throughout the day, as is the custom during the 30-day Islamic observance.
Harold has become a more devout Muslim during incarceration, he said. He wants to help others avoid the mistakes he’s made after he’s released in 18 months.
“If it wasn’t for my religion,” Harold said, “I’d probably still be the same guy up to no good.”
To read an interview with a Protestant chaplain in DOC, go to my blog, “The Pulpit,” at http://www.thepulpit.freedomblogging.com..
Colorado Department of Corrections has 21,000 inmates. Below is a partial breakdown of the percentage and number of inmates who follow a certain faith or no faith.
American Indian, 1,067, 5 percent.
Atheist, 41, less than 1 percent
Buddhist, 265, 1.3 percent
Catholic, 3,659, 17.4 percent
Hindu, 16, less than 1 percent
Muslim, 711, 3.3 percent
Jewish, 677, 3.2 percent
Messianic, 1,677, 8 percent
Protestant, 8,304, 39.6 percent
Satanist, 27, less than 1 percent
Wicca, 478, 2.2 percent
Source: Colo. DOC