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Inmates in Colorado prisons face an uphill battle when it comes to practicing their religion

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Allen Fistell didn't live by society's rules, so a judge and jury sent him to prison.

Eleven years later, the convicted murderer says he's rediscovered Orthodox Judaism and is working to obey religious rules that give him hope he can turn his life around.

"In order for me, as a person, to be a better person, and not be the person I was before I came to prison, I have to get closer to HaShem," Fistell says.

Worshiping HaShem, or God, requires specific practices, he says. But the Colorado Department of Corrections, or DOC, is standing in his way. Officials won't allow him and other Jewish inmates to celebrate Sabbath on Saturday mornings. Inmates have had to fight to be served kosher food. There's no guarantee he can attend Hanukkah services.

He isn't alone.

Saving money Eleven years ago -- the same year that Fistell, now 39, was sentenced to prison -- the Colorado Legislature eviscerated the state's prison chaplain system. To save $500,000 a year, politicians eliminated 19 paid, full-time professionals who were charged with meeting the religious needs of prisoners.

Lawmakers replaced the trained chaplains with six full-time prison officials, who, in addition to coordinating 27 volunteer chaplains at 28 state and private prisons, also deal with hundreds of other groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

Other states are beginning to take a look at Colorado's volunteer chaplain model; but this state remains virtually alone in its decision to operate its prisons without professional chaplains, joining Virginia, which has strict state laws separating religion and state, among others.

Critics contend that not having official chaplains serve the spiritual needs of prisoners has and will certainly continue to hurt them -- as well as taxpayers -- in the long run.

In the past two and a half years, hundreds of Colorado prisoners have filed more than 1,000 formal grievances against prison officials, including accusations of being denied important religious holidays and withholding items needed for religious services or prayer. Many of the complaints have been filed by Jews, Catholics, American Indians and Muslims, and 76 percent of those complaints were denied or rejected.

The inmates are also chagrined by the rise of volunteer evangelical Christian chaplains. They allege the DOC has developed a bias, giving preferential treatment to evangelicals who have stepped up efforts to preach in prison -- while ignoring the religious needs of some inmates.

1,014 grievances The religious rights of inmates, whether the public likes it or not, are protected by the Constitution and state law.

Most of Colorado's 19,500 inmates claim a religion -- just 13 percent say they have none, according to DOC records. Protestants represent 44 percent of inmates. Catholics compose 19 percent. Some 900 American Indians constitute 5 percent of all inmates and more than 1,200 Jewish and Muslim prisoners together total 6 percent of the inmate population.

Between Jan. 1, 2002, and Sept. 13, 2004, more than 300 inmates filed 1,014 formal "religion" grievances, according to a DOC database obtained by the Independent through open-records laws. The complaints, which state prison officials claim they were unable to break down by specific faith, are handled in a four-tier system, from "informal," dealt with at prisons, to "Level 3," a last-resort appeal decided by top DOC officials.

In all, 774 complaints were rejected as without cause -- many several times -- in the appeals process. Another 65 were deemed not applicable, and 176 were granted, partially granted or resulted in a recommendation for change in the way prisoners are allowed to practice their faith.

Allen Fistell, a convicted murderer, is trying to turn his - life around with the help of his Jewish faith. - KENNETH WAJDA
  • Kenneth Wajda
  • Allen Fistell, a convicted murderer, is trying to turn his life around with the help of his Jewish faith.

Many of the complaints are denied or rejected because of security concerns, said Katherine Sanguinetti, the DOC official responsible for overseeing volunteer chaplains.

"The answer is always security," said Suzanne MacDonald, who runs a Buena Vista organization that advocates for American Indians. "I have to say that I believe the security people have very vivid imaginations about what might happen."

For example, animal skins for Indian drums have been prohibited at some prisons because they were deemed dangerous, MacDonald said.

"Someone decided the hair was an escape risk," MacDonald said. "I still don't get that one."

Gary Friedman, a chaplain in Seattle and chairman of Jewish Prisoner Services International, said he gets more letters from inmates claiming religious discrimination from Colorado than any other state.

"Colorado is the worst state in the country for religious discrimination against inmates," he said.

In 2000, Jewish inmates across Colorado weren't allowed to officially celebrate Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights that commemorates an ancient victory over Syrians. (This year, the eight-day celebration of Hanukkah began Tuesday evening, Dec. 7.)

In a legal opinion to the DOC four years ago, Paul Sanzo, an assistant attorney general for Colorado, stated that wardens would have to grant "special" permission for Jews to celebrate Hanukkah because it was not one of the "four holy days" allowed by the DOC.

"It was ridiculous," Friedman said. "It's a very important holiday. You can't just decide that every religion has four days that are holy and say there are no more allowed."

Not forced to watch Friedman, along with leaders of other Jewish and non-Christian groups, cites a host of additional examples.

When the DOC allowed Mel Gibson's R-rated The Passion of the Christ to be shown at least twice in late October in several prisons, some Jewish advocates were stunned. Many Christian organizations praise Gibson's graphic depiction of the events leading to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, But Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, criticize the film's plot lines as deeply anti-Semitic. The ADL fears the film could spark violence against Jews -- a worry Friedman says is exacerbated considering Colorado prisons have groups hostile to Jews.

"I didn't feel like it was anti-Semitic," Sanguinetti said, noting that the DOC consulted a rabbi who agreed with her position. "Nobody is forced to watch the movie. They can choose to watch it or not. So far, there's been no anti-Semitic activity that has arisen from this."

MacDonald, meanwhile, says American Indian inmates are regularly denied items they need for worship.

"Native American religion is very inconvenient for the Department of Corrections because it can't be shoved in a room like most other religions," she said.

The latest battle is at Huerfano County Correctional Center in Walsenburg, a private prison run by the Corrections Corporation of America, she said. Officials there are considering moving the location of an Indian sweat lodge ceremony from the prison grounds to a cell.

"It means they'll be inside a cage conducting their religious ceremonies and anybody who wants to can stand around and cat call and throw things or whatever," MacDonald said. "[The state is] required by law to provide for religious activities and that means a sweat lodge. A sweat lodge means a space on the grounds. It means a fire. It means supervision."

Gary Friedman is chairman of Jewish Prisoner Services - International.
  • Gary Friedman is chairman of Jewish Prisoner Services International.

With strict rules that prevent individuals from donating items to specific inmates, many prisoners rely on a canteen that sells dozens of religious items -- everything from sage for Indian ceremonies, which costs $5 a bag, to a 67-cent, 2-ounce bag of earth. MacDonald said the prices are a disadvantage for some inmates who can't count on anyone to give them money, especially those who are segregated and not allowed by the DOC to work to earn money.

New rules every year The Department of Corrections revises "administrative regulations" each year. It may sound like bureaucratic housekeeping, but what DOC officials decide affects the religious lives of inmates -- everything from what they can buy at the canteen to which holidays are permitted.

For example, when Sanguinetti joined the DOC about three years ago, she agreed that Jewish inmates should be able to officially celebrate Hanukkah and changed policy.

"Every facility is different," said James Springer, a 49-year-old Jewish inmate interviewed earlier this year at the Metro Detention Center, an El Paso County jail, in Colorado Springs. Springer, released from custody this week after serving time for a parole violation, has spent time in several DOC prisons. "Every time I go to a facility, I have to fight to get something."

Jews are currently battling to get the DOC to recognize Purim, a celebration of the Jews' ancient liberation from Persian persecution. Jews also want to attend Sabbath prayers on Saturday mornings, but are prevented. They are restricted to observing the Sabbath only on Friday and Saturday nights.

Manuel Weiss, a Colorado Springs attorney and Jewish advocate who meticulously tracks the DOC's changes to religious regulations each year, says the constant review means inmates are subject to the whims of whichever DOC official happens to be in charge of coordinating inmates' religious needs.

"Every year, everything has to be reinvented," Weiss said.

Jewish prayer boxes called tefillin, which have bands that wrap around the forehead and arm of inmates when they conduct morning prayers, have been taken from inmates after nearly a decade. The new policy requires inmates to ask for the items each day.

"That means if a particular guard doesn't like an inmate, that inmate would be unable to pray," he said. "This is just another example of discriminatory practices in prisons."

Shortage of priests Catholic prisoners also face challenges. Since Colorado's volunteer chaplain program was instituted, the Catholic Diocese of Pueblo, which serves the majority of Colorado inmates, does not always have enough priests to conduct Mass on Sundays, meaning Catholic inmates often go without Communion.

"There is a shortage of priests," Ron Roybal, who acts as a liaison for Catholic inmates, said. He added that Catholic inmates also do not regularly get to attend confession.

Three prisons currently have no volunteer chaplain -- Fort Lyon Correctional Facility, Colorado Women's Correctional Facility and Trinidad Correctional Facility.

Tim Dore, executive director of the Catholic Conference in Denver, which advises the state's Catholic bishops on policy matters, said church officials are aware of potential problems with the state's volunteer chaplain program, but haven't decided upon a course of action.

"It's definitely on our radar," he said.

James Blum, 36, who was convicted of sexual assault on a child, is a Catholic inmate in Fremont Correctional Facility. He says only recently did DOC officials allow Catholics to celebrate all their holidays. But some items are still denied, such as candles, which he says deprives the senses.

"A man's faith isn't about just what goes on inside of his head. God created us as a whole being ... when we worship the Lord, there's a material dimension to that," he said. "All of these things have meaning to us."

Colorado Springs attorney Manuel Weiss says that - inmates religious needs are subject to the whims of the - Colorado Department of Corrections. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • Colorado Springs attorney Manuel Weiss says that inmates religious needs are subject to the whims of the Colorado Department of Corrections.

Fighting for every little thing In 2000, three Fremont County inmates -- including Fistell, Charles Beerheide and Sheldon Perlman -- won a five-year battle to be served kosher food.

"When I first came to prison, there were absolutely no Jewish services," Fistell said.

So he fought for kosher food and has become one of Colorado's most vocal inmates when it comes to religious rights.

"Everything has been a fight, for every little thing," he said.

Scot Peterson, a Denver attorney who represented the inmates, said prison officials put up a strong fight. When Jewish inmates won their initial court battle for kosher food, the DOC tried to implement a co-payment plan for the meals, charging inmates $90 a month, he said. U.S. District Judge Lewis Babcock ruled against the DOC in 2000, finding that officials had violated inmates' constitutional rights.

As recently as 2000, some prisons forced Jewish inmates to include Messianic Jews in their meetings. Messianics celebrate Jewish traditions, but say Jesus Christ is the messiah. Many traditional Jews view Messianics as Christians and maintain that worshiping alongside them is inappropriate. The inclusion of Messianics in Jewish meetings sparked walkouts by Jews who said they would rather go without services.

Banned from jail Currently, the DOC is embroiled in a lawsuit filed nearly a decade ago by a Muslim inmate who wants to eat halal meat. Halal means "lawful" and many Muslims view eating halal food as an obligation to God.

Sanzo, the Colorado assistant attorney general, said Muslims could choose not to eat meat by going vegetarian.

"There's nothing that says an inmate has a right to eat meat," he said.

Other groups and volunteers that help inmates practice their religions say prison officials have unfairly expelled them.

Earlier this year, Jewish Prisoner Services International was banned by prison officials from donating items to inmates. The prison said the organization sent an inflammatory note to inmates, but the organization denies sending such a note. An inmate has since claimed he created the note, but the ban remains in place.

In November, the co-chairman of JPSI, Lawrence Karlin, a retired engineer from Colorado Springs, was denied access to prisoners at the Fremont Correctional Facility, where he has donated items to Jewish and American Indian inmates for several years. A DOC official informed Karlin in a Nov. 23 letter that he would be suspended for nine months because he engaged in "unauthorized social contact with inmates upon their release."

Karlin said that he helps inmates reintegrate into society, but has never purposefully broken DOC rules. The DOC's regulation, he maintains, prevents inmates from making connections with people on the outside who can help them.

"I think they really were looking for an excuse to push me out," said Karlin, adding that he frequently advocated for inmates' religious rights.

Friedman said he was "astounded" and "outraged" by the DOC's decision to exclude Karlin.

Paul Rogers, president of the American Correctional - Chaplains Association is concerned that volunteer prison - chaplain programs like Colorados could lead to - problems.
  • Paul Rogers, president of the American Correctional Chaplains Association is concerned that volunteer prison chaplain programs like Colorados could lead to problems.

"It's the inmates who get hurt by this," Friedman added. "They are the ones who get shortchanged and suffer."

'Inmates can trust Christ' Since the volunteer system was set in place, evangelical Christian volunteer chaplains have stepped up to the plate and, with vast resources, often serve as the de facto ministers for the majority of Colorado prisoners. One such organization, the Virginia-based Christian Good News Prison and Jail Ministry, began working with Colorado inmates in 1997.

"Typically what my men and women do is they oversee and facilitate programs for all faith traditions in an institution," said Clint Pollard, Good News regional director for Colorado.

"We are unashamedly evangelical Christian chaplains, but we also facilitate worship, acquisition of materials, enlisting support from other faith traditions -- whether it's to seek out a Jewish rabbi to come in and minister to Jewish inmates or a Muslim Imam to come in and minister to Muslim inmates, we work with all faith traditions in the provision of services."

But Good News chaplains aren't always working in the prisons. The chaplains, Pollard says, also have to raise funds. They hold golf tournaments, banquets and other events in order to raise $1.4 million a year to provide chaplains to Colorado prisons.

That can lead to problems, said Paul Rogers, a Wisconsin chaplain and president of the American Correctional Chaplains Association, or ACCA, which accredits chaplains across the nation.

"Where are they going to raise money?" he asked. "Who are they going to be beholden to? They're not going to Islamic centers. They're not going to the Catholic Church."

None of the Good News chaplains working in the state's prisons are ACCA accredited, he added. ACCA accreditation provides specific training to chaplains to ensure they adhere to a specific code of ethics that requires them to be sensitive to all religious needs.

Although some inmates allege otherwise, Rogers isn't convinced there is purposeful discrimination by Good News volunteers or any other Christian group -- there's just a lack of experience when it comes to understanding the needs of other religions.

"That's what happens when you have an untrained person," he said.

Without professional, accredited staff chaplains, Rogers maintains, there isn't the same network for helping officials determine what is necessary for certain faith groups and what is not, leaving the DOC vulnerable to a rash of complaints and lawsuits. Volunteer chaplains don't have clout to take on officials, he added.

Without full ACCA training, Rogers fears Good News and other evangelical ministers could be tempted to preach their own faith to non-Christian inmates in attempts to convert them, a charge flatly denied by Good News.

"Absolutely not true," Pollard said. "If men ask to see us or attend some of our services, if you go to an evangelical service, you need to know what you're getting when you go there, but we do not go proselytizing. It is strictly forbidden. If I thought one of my people were proselytizing, they wouldn't be with Good News any longer."

But many look suspiciously at some of Good News' stated goals as evidence the organization's chaplains are predisposed to carry out a mission, such as this one from its Web site at "To see more chaplains in more jails and prisons so that more inmates can trust Christ for eternal salvation!"

Roderick Hardiman, 42, an Orthodox Jewish prisoner at Buena Vista Correctional Complex whose Jewish name is Yehuda-Aslan Ben Rachamim, maintains that, in his experience, evangelical volunteer chaplains have not been sensitive to his needs.

James Blum, a Catholic inmate in Fremont Correctional - Facility. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • James Blum, a Catholic inmate in Fremont Correctional Facility.

"If it's Jewish, it's a hassle," said Hardiman, who was convicted of dealing stolen goods.

Cleaning hearts Because evangelical groups are so well funded compared to other faiths, Friedman maintains Colorado's prison system has made faith issues one-sided.

"What they've done is essentially establish evangelical Christianity as the state prison religion of choice," he said.

Specifically, Friedman points to a Dec. 11, 2002, letter on state of Colorado letterhead signed by a DOC employee formerly responsible for coordinating religious volunteers. The letter solicits donations for religious items from a spectrum of faiths.

"Dear fellow Christian warriors," Lt. Frank Sipe wrote. "May His grace be truly sufficient for you and His mercies great as we experience this wonderful season."

Rogers, the president of the American Correctional Chaplains Association, was stunned by the letter.

"Holy cow," he said. "It's terrible. It's so derogatory."

Sanguinetti, who said preaching for a particular faith is strictly prohibited by DOC rules, was equally surprised.

"Oh dear," she said. "That was never brought to my attention."

Another item Sanguinetti was unaware of dates to September of 2000. It was a DOC response to Messianic Jews -- who identify themselves as Jews for Jesus. The prison Messianics said they didn't want to meet with traditional Jews anymore.

The letter stated that Messianics wanted to "establish our own celebration times of both the High Holy Days on the Jewish calendar and the weekly (Sabbath) services according to the Torah."

The DOC employee responded by telling Messianics that it would be hard to locate a separate room for their worship. The official emphasized that "ALL" faith meetings are open to all inmates.

"I know that this may not be a pleasant solution, but do not let the ungodliness of others stop you from taking care of your spiritual needs," the official (former DOC volunteer coordinator, Lt. Tina Gurule) wrote. "If it fulfills a need of yours to attend the Friday night Jewish service please continue to do so with a clean heart."

Blum alleges that a DOC official once told him that he'd "cure" him of being a Catholic.

"He said, 'You know, Blum, we're gonna make a Protestant out of you,'" Blum said. " I guess he thought that was funny. I didn't."

JRoderick Hardiman, an Orthodox Jewish prisoner at the - Buena Vista Correctional Complex, maintains that - evangelical volunteer chaplains have not been sensitive - to his faith. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • JRoderick Hardiman, an Orthodox Jewish prisoner at the Buena Vista Correctional Complex, maintains that evangelical volunteer chaplains have not been sensitive to his faith.

Spreading the word Colorado prison officials firmly back the notion of volunteer chaplains. They even want to expand the concept to other prisons across the nation.

At an American Correctional Association conference this summer, Joe Ortiz, who currently heads the Colorado Springs-based DOC, successfully incorporated changes to national standards, placing religion in the hands of prison administrators rather than chaplains.

"We're not imposing our system on other states," Sanguinetti said. "We're asking that they look at our system and realize it's just as good and it can be accredited just as well as a state with paid chaplains."

Ortiz's move is the reverse of what his predecessor, John Suthers, had tried to do. Suthers, who is now Colorado's U.S. attorney, had sought to restore paid chaplains by asking the Legislature for funds. But the proposal never made it to lawmakers and the DOC has no record of the request, which many say was made around 2000.

"I know that we had contemplated it," said Dixie Reed, the DOC's budget director. "Since it was never approved, I never kept any documentation."

Suthers declined to be interviewed about why he wanted paid chaplains returned. But Friedman said he was asked by Suthers for help restoring paid chaplains. Friedman said Suthers was concerned that the current system of DOC oversight and volunteer chaplains was leading to discriminatory conditions, leaving the DOC vulnerable to lawsuits, like the one for kosher food during his tenure.

Rogers says incorporating volunteer chaplaincy nationally is a bad move.

In 2003, he was asked by Congress to testify on behalf of the ACCA about terrorist religious groups operating behind bars. Instead, he said those concerns were "overblown" and told members of a Senate subcommittee on terrorism, technology and homeland security the biggest problem facing prisons was volunteer chaplains, who, because of a lack of training, are making prisons vulnerable to the inequities that can cause disruptions.

"Unqualified chaplains and/or inadequate supervision of programs and volunteers allow opportunities for abuse of religious programs," he told senators. "The most effective way to counter such conditions is to employ certified correctional chaplains to administer religious programs. Why is this not being universally done?"

Finding religion George Sullivan, a Salem, Ore., corrections consultant with 49 years' experience -- including serving as the DOC's deputy warden from 1989 to 1994, notes that being locked away is tough on prisoners. Religion, he says, can be a guide in a confusing place. He questions whether prisons alone help rehabilitate criminals.

"I'm more than skeptical," Sullivan said. "I just don't see that there's too much benefit derived from incarcerating people, other than the protection of the public while they are incarcerated. The only ones that have benefited from a prison incarceration are those who become active in the various religious services, the religious programs."

Many religious leaders say faith behind bars can be the difference between prisoners returning to a life of crime once released.

Peterson, the Denver attorney who successfully represented the three Fremont County inmates in their fight to be served kosher food, says that without paid chaplains, DOC officials will ultimately need to invest even more money to train guards and volunteers to assure that every inmate can practice his or her own faith.

"What it is going to take to fix it is fairly serious training of correctional officials," he said.

Remember last summer?

On July 20, inmates rioted at Colorado's privately run Crowley County Correctional Facility 80 miles southeast of Colorado Springs.

Prisoners set fires, broke windows using weights and destroyed a guard control room. The final bill to taxpayers: $385,624.

On Oct. 1, the Colorado Department of Corrections released a 179-page "after-action" report, which identified a lack of training and high turnover as factors that helped spark the uprising.

Investigators also noted that religious issues played a role in the riot. The training of food workers regarding religious diets was poor, and the food service manager allegedly ignored complaints regarding inmates' religious needs.

The report suggested the prison "consider a change in the food service contractor; ensure food service staff are trained in preparation of medical and religious diets."

The grievance process -- including how religious complaints are taken -- was also deemed by investigators as problematic. Inmates claimed that their requests were denied too often.

-- Michael de Yoanna

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