Prison Religious Issues
Whittier Daily News
Chaplain warned of effect of cutting religious help
Wednesday, January 19, 2005 - In the weeks leading up to the killing of corrections Officer Manuel Gonzalez, religious services in part of the California Institution for Men were curtailed, which a prison chaplain says might have contributed to the officer's death.
Michael Nichols, who has ministered to prisoners for 35 years and is chairman of the state employees union's chaplain occupation committee, had warned prison officials that cutting back on religious programs could lead to violence, especially during the holiday season.
"Tensions run high, and I think they turned up the heat on the tension valve,' Nichols said. "Instead of having a proper release, it exploded, and the explosion was the killing of an officer.'
Gonzalez, 43, who lived in South Whittier, was stabbed to death Jan. 10 in the prison's central reception center. Authorities suspect inmate Jon Christopher Blaylock in the killing.
For Nichols, Gonzalez's death is the tragic result of a decision by CIM administrators to cut back worship services in the central reception center, where many high-security prisoners are held.
Nichols said he was told religious and other programs were reduced for part of December because of a large fight earlier in the month. But that decision meant inmates who were already under stress about being imprisoned during the holidays were pushed to the breaking point, he said.
"It wasn't just one day. We're talking the whole religious holy days were shut down,' Nichols said. "You want to create tension, take away people's religious rights.'
Capt. Kevin Peters, a spokesman for the prison, said it's not unusual for some programs to be put on hold at times. For example, if part of CIM goes on lockdown, religious services as well as visitations can be suspended.
"When there are disruptive issues within a prison there are controls that are put in place,' Peters said. "There may have been modifications to the program, but not elimination of the program.'
Nichols and other religious leaders say their prison work is treated as a low priority by administrators. Requests to allow new volunteers at CIM have been backlogged for 13 months, Nichols said.
But the ministry is essential, said Robert Frias, a pastor at Living Waters Church in Chino. Hundreds of inmates attend the services he holds at prisons throughout the state, and for many of them, programs like job training and drug counseling don't often help as much as religion does.
"They help up to a point, but as far as God and Him actually forgiving you and restoring you, a program can't restore you,' Frias said.
Nichols is working to craft a procedure that would allow him to minister to inmates while they are in their cells on lockdown, which he said is allowed in some parts of CIM.
"We've got an oppressive situation going on in there,' he said. "If you beat a dog enough times, he's gonna bite you. And that's what we've got going on.'
-- Mason Stockstill can be reached at (909) 483-4643.
Religious studies credited with cutting prison violence
By DON THOMPSON, Associated Press Writer
(Updated Thursday, May 13, 2004, 12:15 AM)
SACRAMENTO (AP) - California officials are crediting religious studies with significantly cutting inmate violence at the first prison to ever go through the 40-day program.
So far, 440 medium-security inmates at Jamestown's Sierra Conservation Center have participated in the program based on the best-selling book, "The Purpose Driven Life," by the Rev. Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in Orange County.
That's about a third of the unit's 1,200 inmates, about 125 of them serving life sentences.
Before the program began last year, "we couldn't go more than two weeks without a lockdown or without one gang attacking another," said Hector Lozano, who coordinates the prison's substance abuse treatment programs. "People used to fight first and ask questions later. This got people talking together, as opposed to having one group charge another group. It was like cavalry warfare."
The first 200 inmates completed the program in April 2003. During the previous year, there were five riots, 103 violent incidents, four staff assaults, 1,226 inmate disciplinary reports, and five lockdowns.
In the year since, violent incidents dropped by a third, to 67, and disciplinary reports declined to 1,067. Four employees were assaulted, but there was just one riot and lockdown.
The religious program "has definitely played a role," said prison spokesman Lt. Kenny Calhoun, though he also credits the prison's veteran staff and their care in separating gang members.
The inmates formed a non-denominational church, Sierra Christian Center, and give sermons in English and Spanish. They set up a table in the exercise yard on what they've designated "holy ground," where Christians and non-Christians alike gather to worship.
"It took off like wildfire," Calhoun said. "These fellows are really dedicated," with some inmates going cell to cell to recruit participants.
Two of California's most notorious prisons - San Quentin and Pelican Bay - are now using or planning similar programs, and church and prison officials are fielding inquiries from around the nation. The church shipped 200 books to a prison fellowship for use in five Florida prisons, along with books to individual inmates in 20 states.
The book has 40 chapters; participants read one each day, reflecting on and discussing the relevance to their lives.
Four months ago, the prison spun off a Bible-based 12-step program, Celebrate Recovery, also sponsored by the church, to help inmates deal with alcohol and substance abuse, anger, emotional, physical and sexual abuse, and other problems.
One hundred inmates are participating, and prison officials are proposing to designate a 200-bed cellblock as a "therapeutic community" to expand the program on an experimental basis. New Mexico prison officials have reported success with a similar program there.
Warren visited the prison program in August, and his church donated the books, Bibles, study materials and videos.
"We called and said we don't have the money," Lozano said. "They said, 'Your money's no good here anyway,'" and donated what he estimates at $5,000 to $10,000 worth of materials.
On Wednesday, Saddleback Church honored the prison program as one of two churches in California that best represent spiritual health and balance the five life purposes outlined in Warren's book. The award carries a $5,000 prize for use in the ministry.
Sierra Conservation Center's main role is preparing minimum-security inmates for 20 firefighting camps. But it also houses the medium-security unit, which was routinely torn by race-based gang violence.
The religious studies "had a definite calming effect," said Lozano, who introduced the program after going through it at his own church.
The gangs even agreed among themselves to stand down after the one major melee since the program began, a March 15 incident sparked by a single gang member, Lozano said.
"The Bible tells us we're supposed to minister in prisons," Lozano said. "From a strictly prison-management perspective, it's a win-win situation. The inmate feels better, we feel better, and nobody gets hurt."
On the Net:
California Department of Corrections: www.cdc.state.ca.us
Read about the book: http://www.purposedrivenlife.com/index.asp
Read about Saddleback Church's Purpose Driven Church Conference 2004: