Freedom of religion remains free at Monroe County Jail

December 21, 2018

Be it rosary beads for a Catholic, a meeting with a rabbi, a prayer mat for Ramadan or a Bible for someone who’s never held one, whatever the religious need, it’s met by the chaplain and staff at the Monroe County Jail.

Inmates make requests for spiritual items used to practice religious freedoms. They fill out paper chaplain request forms by hand and rent tablets to submit their religious wants electronically. Or they speak to the chaplain directly. Most of the requests are fulfilled — within reason.

“We don’t put any limits on their religious rights,” Capt. Mitzi Wine said. “The chaplain does accommodate the requests as long as it’s not interfering with safety and security.”

Mental health counselor Steve Edwards has been the jail’s part-time chaplain for 18 years. He works weekday mornings at the jail and remains on call during the weekends. Afternoons and evenings, he can be found at Sherwood Oaks Christian Church.

There is a clear path from the door to Edwards’ desk in his fourth-floor office across the hall from cell block B. The remainder of the small space is crammed with cardboard boxes, plastic milk crates and shelves of donated books, religious texts and addictions recovery literature. One banner that hangs on the cinder block wall features the face of a lion and reads, “Don’t mess with God at the Monroe County Correctional Center. Revelations 5:5.” When inmates ask about the Bible verse, Edwards instructs them to look it up.

He has Bibles in English and Spanish. The King James version? There’s a case of 24. Adaptations of the Bible written for younger audiences are popular with the inmates. So are books detailing Revelations, the end times.

The books can’t have hard covers, Edwards said. Hardbacks can be hollowed out to create hiding spots for contraband or fashioned into weapons.

Companies manufacture rosaries specifically for inmate populations. Beads strung together with thin cotton thread, the necklaces break easily so inmates can’t hurt themselves or each other.

Sherwood Oaks Christian Church donates the rosaries to the jail because the chaplain’s office doesn’t have a budget. The spiritual books and tokens Edwards provides to inmates come from donations, not taxpayers.

Family members often drop off religious relics for inmates. Cross pendants. Prayer mats. Star of David necklaces. Patron saint medals. Headscarves.

The items need to pass inspection by the chaplain and jail staff. “Generally, we’re gentle about that kind of stuff,” Edwards said.

Jewelry with sharp edges and large crucifixes that can filed into weapons don’t make the cut.

“Anybody that has something that’s nontraditional, we try to cater to them a bit. We’ve got everybody from Wiccans on down,” Edwards said. “As the jail population gets bigger and bigger, it gets more varied.”

Area churches that visit the jail throughout the week for Bible studies and prayer groups include Gideons International, Second Baptist Church, Southside Christian Church, McCormick’s Creek Church and Ellettsville’s House of Prayer.

Inmates can also schedule visits with religious leaders in the jail’s private conference rooms.

Spiritual advisers need to pass thorough background checks before entering the jail. People intent on trafficking contraband have schemed to get inside the jail under the guise of religious guidance.

“They have had people say they are there for Bible study when it’s the inmate’s family and friends. We have to screen them pretty good cause we’ve been burned over the years,” Edwards said.

While jail staff honor inmates’ dietary restrictions due to religious beliefs, inmates are limited in making changes to dietary contracts. When some inmates get bored with their meal options, they’ll try to play the religious card to get different meal options.

“Vegan is not a religion,” Edwards quipped.

Visits from Christian ministry groups during the Christmas season have become holiday traditions at the jail.

The House of Prayer’s Un-Chained Ministries will visit the jail after the inmates eat dinner on Sunday, Dec. 16. Congregation members sing holiday carols and give gifts to the inmates.

Gifts include innocuous and jail-approved items like socks, soap and shampoo. The inmates can also choose from a selection of wrapped candies, snack bars and bags of chips.

A similar visit by members of the Bluffton, Indiana-based ministry group Christmas behind Bars has been scheduled for the evening of Dec. 23.

The annual holiday visits from the ministries are popular with most inmates, regardless of religious affiliation.

“I’ve never had anyone refuse it, and I’m usually here every year for both events,” said Wine.


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