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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?

October 11, 1994|ROY RIVENBURG | 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.

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."

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).

"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.

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