California prisoners free to practice religion

Monday, February 23, 1998

TEHACHAPI, Calif. (AP) — You can strip a person of his freedom, but not his religion.

That’s the policy in California’s 33 prisons, and the California Correctional Institute in Tehachapi is no exception.

Muslims can fast during Ramadan, Jews can wear yarmulkes, American Indians can keep feathers or medicine bags and a host of others can have the Bible, Torah or Koran in their cells.

“There could be Satanists at times. We’ve had inmates who have been Wiccas. We’ve had Hare Krishna (followers), Buddhists,” said Barry Smith, a prison official who deals with religious policy and development.

According to state law, all inmates must be given a reasonable opportunity to practice their faiths as long as it doesn’t threaten security, Smith said. That means Sikhs, for example, wouldn’t be allowed to carry ceremonial swords.

Valuable artifacts and metals like gold and silver also are banned.

Religious objects “can’t be used as some bartering material that could be used as some kind of enterprise,” Smith said.

Food, however, is different as long as costs don’t exceed regular meals offered in the cafeteria.

“The taxpayers are not paying for kosher dietary meals,” Smith said.

However, the prison system offers a vegetarian meal that meets the needs of most religious dietary laws. For specialized diets, the department contracts with religious organizations.

Then there are inmates like William Rouser who demand more access to practice their faith. Rouser filed a lawsuit against the California State Prison in Sacramento for not letting him worship in the chapel and keep artifacts as a Wiccan.

Rouser since has been transferred to the Tehachapi prison, where he has demanded things like Tarot cards, the book A Witches Bible Compleat, incense and candles.

In a confidential settlement with the state correctional department in November, Rouser won many of those rights including access to the chapel during eight annual witches’ Sabbaths.

Rouser, who is a maximum security inmate, also can use incense, small wands, ritual cups, cords and small bells as long as the items are kept by prison officials when they’re not in use, according to a copy of the settlement obtained by The Bakersfield Californian.

So has the freedom of religion gone too far for inmates serving time for all sorts of crimes? At least one prison official says no.

Rouser’s settlement simply allows him to have the same right as anyone else in the prison to practice religion, said Janice Jaffe, the Tehachapi prison’s community resources manager.

Although the Wiccan faith isn’t as popular as, say, Protestantism, prison officials are trying to treat it as a legitimate faith, Jaffe said.