RNS points out how ICE detainees' religious rights get shafted in prison


Shortly after I posted a blog about Sikhs in a western Oregon jail last week, Religion News Service came out with piece about what kinds of spiritual counsel –- if any –- detainees get in America’s prisons.

The idea for the story, reporter Tom Verde said, came in September while he was watching something on TV about jailed immigrants and wondering if any of them have access to any clergy. The resulting story apparently took about six weeks of research and digging.

The short answer to his question is: Infrequently or not at all.

(RNS) — In May, Roberto Rauda, an undocumented immigrant, went to a New London, Conn., courthouse to pay a fine for carrying an open container of beer. Instead he was detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in a routine sweep and ended up in the Bristol County House of Corrections in North Dartmouth, Mass.

Rauda, 37, who came to New York from El Salvador as a teen and several years ago found work in construction and at a lobster processing plant in Connecticut, was released in September, after members of the New London advocacy group Unidos Sin Fronteras paid his legal fees and $3,500 bail.

Sitting in his lawyer’s living room, Rauda grimly recalled conditions at the Massachusetts facility, such as cramped and uncomfortable sleeping arrangements and inedible food.

Yet his face softened as he recounted how prayer helped him endure.

“We had a Catholic priest who came every two weeks, and we would get together in a room to pray and sing hymns,” Rauda told Religion News Service through a translator. “I was scared I wouldn’t get out, that my wife would be left alone, and I prayed to God that she would be all right,” he said.

Rauda was one of the more fortunate ones, according to Verde’s piece. Typically, there’s nothing at all.

Being that the prisons weren’t too forthcoming about this information, he had to rely on information from the International Institute of Akron, a refugee services organization, whose lawyers have access to detainees. He also got a quote from CoreCivic, a private corrections company.

CoreCivic Manager of Public Affairs Rodney E. King, in an email, said that NEOCC provides for the spiritual needs of detainees. The facility, he said, has “a full-time chaplain, as well as a part-time chaplain.”

He added that there are six active religious service volunteers who currently serve evangelical Christians, Catholics, Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Sikhs for the U.S. Marshals Service and the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. One of those, the Catholic volunteer, has recently been cleared by ICE to minister to detainees and approvals are pending for a Muslim and a Sikh, King wrote.

But reports from human rights organizations, immigrant advocacy groups and the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general chronicle religious rights concerns at various ICE detention centers. The concerns range from prison guards mocking some faith traditions to the disruption or denial of detainees’ rights to worship.

First, getting access to a prison as a clergy volunteer can take forever.

Without visiting volunteer clergy, a chaplain could only minister to all inmates for a few seconds a day, or less than two minutes per week, said Dustin White, pastor at Radial Church in Canton, Ohio.

White was among a group of five clergy arrested outside NEOCC in August for refusing to leave unless they were allowed to offer religious support to detainees there.

White said he attempted to go through the proper channels of applying to be a visiting clergy, but the process took months before it dead-ended.

There’s some really good stories in this article, such as the clergywoman from Tucson who ministered to children of refugees and how one simple song about traveling through the desert caused many to lament and weep. There was a variety of clergy sources (Catholic, Southern Baptist, The Brethren, United Church of Christ), yet I wondered if any Muslim, Sikh or other organizations were contacted about their outreach into prisons.

Speaking of the Sikhs I covered, they just filed a lawsuit against the Donald Trump administration on Thursday. The Oregonian reported:

"While detained at Sheridan, asylum-seeking detainees of the Sikh faith were denied a vegetarian diet, and many were forced to eat meat to avoid malnutrition and starvation," the lawsuit said.

The plaintiffs were told to pray in their cells, but their religious beliefs do not allow them to pray in a room with a toilet, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit said those are violations of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Back to the RNS piece: Why wasn’t Prison Fellowship quoted? If there’s one religious group that knows what’s happening inside America’s prisons, PF is it. I’m curious if they simply didn’t respond or whether the reporter didn’t reach out to them.

In any case, stories about religion and asylum seekers are still very much out there. Either they’re about the religious groups reaching out to the immigrants or the faith of the immigrants themselves. I think Verde’s piece only touched the surface of some of the abuses out there and his journey started with a simple “I wonder if…”

Hopefully other reporters can look into what’s going on in the prisons in their backyards.

Photo via ACLU of Oregon.

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