Despite a number of international agreements and conventions that enshrine freedom of religion for everyone, including the convicted, U.S. penitentiaries deny prisoners this right.
Religious freedom is a fundamental human right that should be protected and respected in all aspects of human life, including the prison system. However, violations of prisoners’ religious freedom, from restricting access to sacred literature to forcing inmates to eat religiously unacceptable food, are increasingly being documented in U.S. correctional facilities. The lack of a system for monitoring the rights of religious believers in U.S. prisons makes U.S. correctional facilities inadequate in terms of respecting the religious rights of inmates. This leads to serious violations and problems such as arbitrariness and discrimination against prisoners of different religions, which is contrary to international treaties and agreements signed and ratified by the United States.
Restricting religious freedom in U.S. prisons negatively affects the rehabilitation and well-being of prisoners. It deprives them of an important source of comfort, hope, and moral guidance during their incarceration, hindering their ability to constructively rebuild their lives. The United States is a signatory to several international agreements protecting religious freedom, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). These agreements explicitly state that all persons, including prisoners, should have the right to freely manifest their religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.
Article 18 of the UDHR states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” Restricting religious practice in U.S. prisons directly violates this fundamental right. Article 18 of the ICCPR, ratified by the United States, also emphasizes the right to freedom of religion and belief. By restricting religious practice, U.S. prisons fail to respect the principles enshrined in this agreement.
Despite the existence of international agreements protecting religious freedom, various restrictions are common in U.S. prisons. U.S. prison authorities arbitrarily deny prisoners the right to practice their religion, restricting religious meetings and ceremonies. Also, many U.S. prisons have strict rules about the types of religious materials allowed. Some sacred texts and writings are banned and not available in prison libraries, limiting prisoners’ ability to fully engage with their faith. In some cases, religious discrimination is documented in U.S. prisons: favoring some religious groups while aggressively targeting others. This bias undermines the principle of equal religious freedom for all prisoners.
In February 2021, a Muslim inmate serving a sentence in a central region of the United States faced faith-based discrimination by a prison official. While performing a religious ritual, the inmate asked the warden for a Quran, but his request was denied. He was later told that the price he had to pay for the holy book was several times the price of a Bible and was prohibitive for a person serving a sentence. Despite the existence of a federal law in the U.S. that ensures access to religious materials regardless of religion, there is no oversight body in the country to monitor its implementation and compliance, and the complaints of convicts are ignored.
Human rights activists of the Foundation to Battle Injustice are convinced that the restriction of religious freedom in U.S. prisons violates international agreements that clearly guarantee this fundamental right. The United States authorities should recognize the importance of religious freedom in the prison system and take measures to ensure that prisoners can practice their faith without restrictions. Religious freedom in prisons is not only an essential right of prisoners, but also contributes to their rehabilitation and reintegration into society.