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Faith in the System : Inmates across the nation are turning to religion in some form. But is it sincere or spin control?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Indiana state prisoner No. 922335, better known as boxing-champ-turned-rapist Mike Tyson, converts to Islam in the tank.

Deposed Panamanian president (and drug smuggler) Manuel Noriega encounters Jesus while doing time in Miami.

And Wall Street wizard Ivan Boesky grows a rabbinical beard and studies Judaism behind bars.

Around the nation, jailhouse solitude seems to have a way of stirring inmate introspection and spiritual interest. In Los Angeles, O.J. Simpson is said to be reading the Bible. In other cities, everyone from convicted cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer to Manson Family member Tex Watson has joined the cavalcade of converts.

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Is it sincere remorse or cynical spin control? Prison religion presents a baffling juxtaposition of good and evil, one that has inspired wonder, skepticism--and a sometimes strange array of ministries.

In addition to representatives of such established deities as Allah and Christ, inmates have followed maharishis, voodoo practitioners, Scientologists, medicine men and the infamous Church of the New Song, a prison-based faith whose sacraments were sherry and steak.

Convicts have also been known to profess an interest in studying Scripture--occasionally because contraband has been hidden in hollowed-out Bibles, but more often because of genuine spiritual longing.

“People are too quick to assume that jailhouse converts (are faking),” says UCLA law professor John Shepard Wiley Jr., a former federal prosecutor. “Actually, prison is the kind of environment that might well prompt a conversion. It’s a shattering . . . monkish existence . . . a complete change in your life. Sure, some turn to the worst instincts. But I don’t think it’s implausible that some turn to the best.”

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Indeed, for many inmates, God offers the only real shot at secular as well as spiritual salvation, says Whitney T. Kuniholm, executive vice president for Prison Fellowship USA, the Christian ministry founded by Watergate ex-con Charles Colson:

“You can have job programs, literacy programs, drug programs and educational programs, but unless something changes on the inside (of a person), that stuff isn’t going to make a difference.”

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Soul-searching inmates turn to religion for several reasons.

“The initial factors usually have little to do with spirituality,” says Don Smarto, a former probation officer and assistant warden who now directs the Institute for Prison Ministries at the Billy Graham Center in Wheaton, Ill. “On a psychological level, they’re bargaining . . . praying for a miraculous intervention (to get them out of jail).”

They might also be enamored with the tranquillity of penitentiary chapels, the doughnuts and cookies offered by some prison ministries or the chance to mingle with women volunteers.

“But God can use any motivation to reach someone,” says Bill Moors, a Seventh-day Adventist chaplain at Vacaville.

That also is the philosophy behind Dallas-based Bill Glass Ministries, which travels to prisons with an entourage of magicians, comedians, karate demonstrators, yo-yo champions, musicians, NASCAR racing vehicles, Christian motorcyclists and a spate of celebrities (such as former quarterback Roger Staubach, boxer Ernie Shavers and jewel thief Jack (Murph the Surf) Murphy).

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“Anything that will draw them out to a meeting” is used, explains Glass spokeswoman Coleen Rohrer. Once there, the hope is that somehow the message will connect and inspire deeper introspection.

A 1992 Rutgers University study concluded that prisoners seek God to cope with “depression, guilt and self-contempt” and to gain “a sense of self-control, an ability to restrain anger.”

They don’t necessarily do it with Christianity, however.

In the West, Native American spiritual leaders conduct sweat lodge ceremonies for prisoners. Incarcerated converts to Judaism celebrate bar mitzvahs. And among black prisoners, recruits to Islam number about 30,000 a year, according to research by the American Muslim Council.

(Christian conversion experiences run as high as 150,000 a year among the nation’s 1 million inmates, but most “commitments to Christ” don’t last and some prisoners convert several times annually, says Rutgers criminal justice professor Todd Clear.)

Penitentiaries also have granted access to Rosicrucians, astrologers, gurus and witches. During the 1970s, California inmates dabbled in Zen Buddhism. “Prison is an ideal place to meditate,” a Zen master told Newsweek at the time. “We teach you to look at a wall to start meditation--(and) prisons have lots of walls.”

Today, Zen isn’t even on the map. Also gone is Transcendental Meditation, whose leaders decided California should pay $1,500 per inmate for yoga training, an offer the state meditated upon and declined.

Another offbeat ‘70s ministry was the Church of the New Song. The Atlanta-based inmate religion won official recognition in 1973, says Newsweek, but a U.S. District Court judge labeled it a “colossal fraud.” The tip-off: a requisition form for liturgical materials that included 98 bottles of Harvey’s Bristol Cream and 700 steaks.

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Prison voodoo rituals were viewed more favorably. In a court order allowing them, Smarto says, “The only proviso was that (inmates) couldn’t put a curse on the warden.”

Voodoo and steaks aside, the 1970s saw an upswing of missionary activity in U.S. prisons. From Sing Sing to San Quentin, hundreds of churches and other organizations blitzed inmates with Bible studies, seminars, Catholic Cursillo retreats and guest appearances by Pat Boone.

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Today, the God Squad continues to grow. Protestants alone operate at least 2,000 prison ministry groups nationwide, Smarto says. And in California, 80 staff chaplains and 15,000 volunteers work with the state’s 125,000 inmates.

The results, however, are unclear.

A 1990 Prison Fellowship study of 360 ex-cons, for example, found that 40% of those who were heavily involved in Fellowship programs in jail committed new crimes after release (compared with 51% of the non-Christian group).

That’s more impressive than it might sound, says Rutgers professor Clear, but the study is flawed and additional analyses are needed. If similar numbers can be produced, he says, it’s encouraging news: “If a (prison job-skills) program had those results, I would be quite enthusiastic about it. Changing human behavior isn’t an easy enterprise.”

Converts to Islam also have a tough time. Black Muslims are actually somewhat more likely to return to prison than other ex-inmates, says researcher Fareed Nu’man of the American Muslim Council. In contrast, 20 years ago, Muslims hardly ever went back to jail, he says. But there were more extensive support programs then.

And outside, it’s easy to forget about God.

Prisoners are just like anybody else, says the Rev. Nick Ristad, president of the 125-member Associated Chaplains in California State Service. “How many people go to church when they have a death in the family or a crisis?” he asks. “And how many stay there once the crisis is over?”

That’s one reason Mormons, for one, won’t baptize inmates until they’re out of jail and finished with probation.

The best test of faith, everyone seems to agree, is time.

Smarto recalls the college-educated drug dealer who left jail in 1990 and took up residence with his former chaplain’s family in Florida. He became a youth leader at church and an assistant chaplain at the local jail. The turnabout was so impressive that Smarto videotaped the man’s testimony and sponsored a fund-raiser when the ex-con announced he had throat cancer.

But the cancer turned out to be a ruse and the chaplain soon discovered $84,000 in forged credit card charges. When the scam came to light, the former felon shot and killed himself in the chaplain’s summer cottage, leaving behind a message in which he hoped for divine forgiveness.

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Understandably, judges and parole boards rarely put much faith in convict conversions, experts say.

“There’s such an incentive to fabricate that it’s difficult to be convincing,” UCLA’s Wiley explains. “The problem is that the best evidence of a genuine conversion comes after a person leaves prison.”

Still, many penitentiary religious experiences do seem lasting and sincere.

There’s the Mafia hit man who was led to Christianity by letters from a teen-age girl, got paroled, married the girl’s mother and now runs his own prison ministry in Kansas. And the Florida cocaine dealer who wrestled with his conscience in lockup, persuaded a skeptical sheriff to help him get a lighter sentence and recently was called a “one-man crime prevention team” by the Orlando Sentinel. The list goes on.

One of the most famous, of course, was Malcolm X. He switched from pimp to Muslim in the 1950s, setting the stage for his role as a leader of the Nation of Islam and an indelible influence upon many African Americans.

Overall, however, the percentage of inmates whose conversions stick is probably “closer to 5% than 50%,” says Clear, although he notes that no precise figures are available.

Heavily publicized prison epiphanies seem to provoke the most skepticism.

When Colson announced in the middle of the Watergate scandal that he had found God, Washington scoffed. And similar disbelief has arisen over the spiritual transformations of Dahmer (who reportedly was baptized in a medical ward whirlpool), David (Son of Sam) Berkowitz, and Noriega, who accepted Jesus in a jail cell that he described as “like unto a cave.”

Another proselytized prisoner who has spurred debate is Manson follower Watson. Although victim Rosemary LaBianca’s daughter has met with and forgiven him, prosecutors and other observers--including Smarto--harbor doubts.

More recently, speculation has focused on O.J. Simpson. Although the exact nature of his spiritual interest isn’t clear, UCLA’s Wiley isn’t surprised by reports of Simpson studying Scriptures in “the hole” (prison parlance for solitary confinement).

“Someone who would casually go for a burger in a Rolls-Royce unquestionably finds (the lack of freedom) just terrible,” Wiley says.

And then there was serial killer Ted Bundy. The night before his execution, he reportedly professed belief in Christ. But earlier, he had converted to Hinduism (because it was the only way to get the prison’s special vegetarian diet). And before that--when he was out of prison--he had been a Methodist, a Mormon and a Roman Catholic.

Ultimately, Kuniholm says, it’s impossible to tell when a jailhouse conversion is real: “Only God knows what’s going on in a person’s heart.”


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