I Was Free to Find Religion in Prison. Will the Supreme Court Protect That Freedom?

Why inmates need to be at liberty to practice their faith.

As the Supreme Court begins its deliberations this Tuesday to determine whether a Muslim man imprisoned in Arkansas should be afforded the right to grow a beard based on his religious conviction (Holt vs. Hobbs), I cannot help but reflect on my own journey. After serving nearly eight years in the Iowa penal system, I walked out of prison extremely thankful.

At 29, I was radically different than the dangerous, hopeless, and selfish 21-year-old that robbed a bank at gunpoint. I had found something in prison that had eluded me for decades — freedom — and I was taking it with me. As I walked past those iron gates for the last time, I knew I was already free, and I was anxious to apply that freedom in productive and meaningful ways.

During my imprisonment, I had the fortunate opportunity to participate in a faith-based program that radically changed the way I thought about myself and others. In developing a relationship with program staff and church volunteers, I came to the simple realization that there was a God — and I wasn’t him. I began to make amends by admitting my failures and asking forgiveness from everyone I had harmed, from a high-school teacher to the president of the bank. I began to practice my newfound faith by volunteering, teaching GED classes, and facilitating treatment classes. I began to pursue education and graduated with honors with my bachelor’s degree.

Holt-v.-Hobbs-Infograph1When I transferred institutions, I continued to practice my freedom by mentoring and acting as an intermediary between prison staff and in-prison organizations. I began to study for the law school admittance test, and after my release would graduate magna cum laude with a Juris Doctorate degree.

I was allowed to practice my faith in ways that would directly contribute to my success upon release. Unfortunately, prison rarely teaches men and women how to be good citizens and rarely affords the opportunities to practice the norms that society demands upon release. By having the freedom to exercise, or practice, my Christian faith — and having that activity constitutionally protected — I was afforded invaluable opportunities to practice good citizenship. I was able to flex my new muscles of leadership, practice healthy conflict resolution, process failure, and start to give back to my community.

Having the ability to practice this freedom while in prison directly contributed to my long-term success upon release. I still reflect on situations that I encountered while in prison when faced with certain “real life” issues today.

Today, prison is no longer the defining point in my life. I no longer organize my life events as occurring “before” or “after” prison — freedom has overwhelmingly overtaken that reference point. Once I became free, my life in and out of prison became seamless. As I speak to men and women currently in America’s prisons and jails, it is this message of freedom that I hope to leave behind.

Protecting the ability to exercise that freedom through religious practice in a place that affords very little in promises of rehabilitation is crucial to penological reform.

In light of the Becket Fund’s representation of Mr. Holt in what could be the largest religious liberty case before the Supreme Court this term, it is imperative for us as a society to recognize that the diminishment of religious exercise for one will result in its limitation for all. If the Supreme Court determines that the application of strict scrutiny within our prisons is anything but “strict,” that rationale will most certainly creep into other areas of the public square, diminishing religious freedom for all.

As I reflect on my near eight years of incarceration, I am convinced that the freedom for me to exercise my newly found religious beliefs remains the single most contributing factor to the changed man I am today. 

The history of America’s penology is deeply rooted in the right of an individual to make penance on both a religious and societal basis. To remove the ability to do diminishes the value of the individual and has negative effects on public safety. In fact, allowing men and women to exercise their religious beliefs within the prison context has been proven to have a direct correlation to increased public safety. Several studies have shown that faith-based programs reduce recidivism and save taxpayers millions of dollars in criminal justice costs.

As some religious liberty advocates may find themselves hesitant to support Mr. Hobbs’ cause in light of religious differences, it is imperative that we understand that in protecting the principal we solidify our own religious freedom. As a person who has successfully walked out of one of the darkest places in our society, I can attest that the affording of that freedom will pay dividends.

Note: The following video, which features the author of this essay, was produced by The Becket Fund.

Jesse Wiese
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