Religion behind bars |

Religion behind bars

William Ferchland

Photo illustration by Dan Thrift / Tahoe Daily Tribune/ Jails offer religious literature to inmates. A request by a female inmate at Douglas County Jail led to the ordering of three Hebrew Bibles which should arrive next week.

While authorities won’t pursue requests from jail inmates for Thursday pizza nights, three Hebrew Bibles were ordered for Douglas County detention facilities after an inmate said she needed the book while incarcerated.

The books are an example of one of the few rights inmates have, how religion is comforting behind bars and how jail facilities must accommodate religious requests if they don’t compromise the facility’s security.

They will be donated by Rabbi Jonathan Freirich after he was contacted by Tahoe Township Judge Richard Glasson, who helped orchestrate the order.

Freirich said he wasn’t surprised the jail didn’t have a Hebrew Bible since the country is dominated by one faith, Christianity.

The Hebrew Bible is the Old Testament of the Bible. Freirich was happy to donate the books on behalf of Temple Bat Yam.

“I think inmates should have access to whatever literature they deem necessary for fulfillment of their inner lives,” he said.

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The Supreme Court thought likewise, albeit for a legal, not spiritual, reason. Earlier this year the high court upheld a federal law requiring prisons to oblige requests from inmates to have religious literature.

The unanimous decision in Cutter v. Wilkson stemmed from Ohio inmates being denied the right for time to worship and access to religious literature. The inmates included a Satanist and a witch.

The court ruled the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 was not a government promotion of religion, thus not unconstitutional.

“If it’s a recognized religion and we can find books and things such as the Bible we will order them,” said Sgt. Dan Coverley, a jail supervisor with Douglas County Sheriff’s Department.

Douglas County jail offers church services on Sundays and Bible study sessions.

Religious diets are also accommodated. If an inmate can’t eat pork, proper food will be given, said Lt. Randy Peshon, in charge of the El Dorado County Jail at South Lake Tahoe.

“It’s a sensitive issue but it’s one we put a lot effort into,” Peshon said.

Two years ago inmate Ulysses Roberson, accused of killing his 4-year-old son two decades ago in a Tahoe Keys home, requested a Muslim prayer rug, prayer beads, head cap and an Arabic Quran.

He received everything but the prayer beads, which Peshon cited as a security concern. He is also given frequent prayer time and a special diet.

Jerry Foster is the chaplain for El Dorado County Jail since 1997 and holds nondenominational services Sunday and Monday. Individual meetings with Foster are available if inmates fill out paperwork. He estimated he’s had about 1,500 one-on-one meetings.

Cellblock gatherings are also held.

Foster has a master’s in pastoral studies so he is able to speak generally about various religions.

“Mostly I’ll listen,” he said. “I just relate to them the best that I can.”

Although most of the inmates are Catholic or Protestant religion, foster said he has encountered many religions during his eight years as jail chaplain.

Foster remembered his first day when an inmate asked, “If I give my life to God will he get me out of here?”

Foster does stress what the Bible states and tells inmates they need three things to stay out of jail: a safe place to live, a church family or similar support group and a job.

“The guys who find all three typically do not come back,” he said.

The three Hebrew Bibles are set to be delivered next week. One is designated for juvenile detention while the other two are for the pair of lake and valley jails.

– E-mail William Ferchland at