Jewish Journal


May 20, 2004

How to Be Religious in Prison


California state prison inmate Raymond Morrison was forced to wear paper clothes, had his personal property taken from him, spent months in "the hole" (a.k.a. administrative segregation), was denied telephone calls and family visits, all because of his adherence to a halachic tenet.

Morrison became Orthodox while serving his 10-year sentence for assault with a semi-automatic weapon, and he decided that in accordance with the biblical commandment, "You shall not destroy the edge of your beard" (Leviticus 19:27), he would not shave his facial hair.

But growing a beard violates prison grooming requirements, and consequently Morrison's insistence on his facial hair has resulted in all manners of disciplinary actions against him.

Morrison's beard crusade raises questions about treatment of inmates in the state prison system. Is the system discriminating against Morrison because of his religion -- as he believes -- or, in acquiescing to every religious or cultural demand of its inmates, will the prison system go too far in accommodating them?

Morrison's strict adherence to the Leviticus verse, which many halachic authorities say can be circumvented by using scissors or an electric razor instead of a straight razor to remove the beard, leads to a more personal question about how far inmates should go in adhering to their religious beliefs. Is Morrison's beard really worth the price he is paying for it?

Some 10,000 Jews are incarcerated across the United States according the Aleph Institute, and advocacy organization for Jewish inmates nationwide. They receive approximately 7,000 applications for their services every year with requests range from wanting religious rights in prison to seeking protection from persecution and discrimination.

"Most of them want kosher food, of course, and to obey the work proscription days [the ability to abstain from work on Shabbat and Jewish holidays] and to be able to break the fast [on fast days] with a meal at sundown," said Robert H. Burns, director of prison services for the Aleph Institute.

However, Aleph estimates that approximately half of those requests come from "wannabes" -- people who are not Jewish but are either sincerely drawn to the religion or want to take advantage of the respective benefits offered to Jewish prisoners. It is this second group of people who essentially abuse the system that make conferring religious rights on prisoners a murky area.

The grooming standards that require prisoners to shave were instituted in 1998 mainly for reasons of security -- so that prisoners won't alter their appearance by shaving and then escape. Other reasons for the ban on facial hair were so that inmates would look neat and clean, and not be able to hide contraband or weapons in their beards.

But while California and some other states prohibit prisoners from growing a beard, inmates in federal prisons are allowed to grow beards, and in certain cases in state prisons, inmates have successfully sued for their right to grow beards.

In 2002, the Los Angeles Times reported 300 Muslim inmates at Solano State Prison challenged the constitutionality of the ban on beards in a class-action lawsuit, which they won when U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence K. Karlton invoked the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUPA). President Clinton signed the bill in 2000, and it forbids state and local governments from imposing "a substantial burden on the religious exercise of persons residing or confined to certain institutions." Since Jews were not included in the class-action suit, they were also excluded from the victory.

According to Burns, a Jewish inmate from Ohio and a Jewish inmate from Kentucky both sued their respective prison systems for the right to grow a beard, and they won because of RLUPA.

"In the federal system you can grow beards, and if it is not a security risk in the federal system, then why should it be a security risk anywhere?" Burns asked. "If [Morrison] really is Orthodox, then it becomes a religious issue. Security takes precedence, and I agree with that, but just because [prison officials] cite the 'catch-all' security problem, doesn't mean it is a security problem."

Morrison's refusal to adhere to the grooming requirements resulted in him accruing 130 disciplinary "points," which meant he was classified as a C-Status inmate -- a "program failure" who was denied privileges like packages from home, prison jobs, telephone calls and family visits, and was transferred to a maximum-security facility. It also means that he is not eligible for parole, despite having served 85 percent of his sentence.

"They scream at his face and tell him to cut his beard and push him and shove him and they want him to get angry so they can put him in 'the hole,'" said Donna Goldstein, Morrison's mother, who is trying to lobby the system from Chicago for a "compassionate transfer" for her son to an Illinois prison where beards are allowed. "Raymond is paying the price for his religious belief. I can't understand that he is classified as a 'program failure' and the same as someone who does drugs [and worse]."

But officials disagree that Raymond is being punished for his religion.

"We absolutely allow inmates to practice their religion while in prison," California Department of Corrections spokeswoman Margot Bach said. "We provide rabbis and priests and spiritual advisers, we have services and we do provide for synagogues on Friday night. This is his [Morrison's] call. If he does this knowing it is going to violate the rules of the institution he needs to be prepared to suffer the consequences."

For more information of Raymond Morrison's case, visit www.geocities.com/goldnetil .

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