Spirituality is usually identified with religion, but some of us think that it is something beyond that. For many, spirituality means a sense that our humanity is more than our individual, physical existence. For most of us, inside or out, it is a major part of how we define who we are, what connects us to others, ?the spirit of our times.?
Spirituality has a long history of being a part of peoples? struggles for survival. African slaves in the US used spirituality as part of resistance to slavery. Native peoples? spirituality has been a central part of survival and resistance ever since the Europeans invaded the North American continent. Every religion- including Wicca, Islam, and Judaism among many others– has a story of how spirituality has sustained its people during terrible oppression. Spirituality in the broad sense is our belief in a better world, including the possibility
of new human relations in the here and now.
Some women who have not been religious before coming to prison, turn to religion. Others turn away from organized religion. One woman asked, ?If there was a God, why would it be so hard to have someone come represent my religion? I believe in the power of prayer. People have something about them that brings things about. But it doesn?t have to be God.?
T. ?Sammy? Pierce said, ?When I first came to [prison], my spirit was dark. Attending sweat lodge ceremonies helped me become a person I want to be, one that cares about others. That is why I want to fight for our rights at CCWF.?
The CDCR assigns a role to organized Christian religions: the prison pays a chaplain, maintains space for a chapel, allows time and permits movement for religious functions. Sometimes the only activity that is approved by the prison is religious. The prison system hopes that organized religions will enforce the attitude that the only solution to personal problems and social injustice is through God. This attitude can discourage people from empowering themselves and standing up against what is wrong. On the other hand, religious and spiritual beliefs can play an important role in supporting the struggle against injustice.
While laws mandate that all religious beliefs be respected in prison, in fact non-Christian religions do not get the same privileges. Muslim women have been singled out even more since 9/11/2001 for special harassment (see story of Muslim women organizing in federal prison on page 3). Native people continue to fight for their religious rights (which have been notoriously trampled) and now the Department Operations? Manual (DOM) includes a special section spelling out their rights. Jewish women report harsh penalties for trying to celebrate Chanukah, the festival of lights. A Mormon spiritual advisor was so badly hounded by the guards–he once spent several hours waiting to get in while the guards were crossing out every church address and phone number on each piece of paper in his possession–that he stopped coming altogether.
In prison, coming together through religious activities can enable people to experience the power of human solidarity in addition to their connections with a higher power. As one prisoner said, ?We all need something bigger than us. Something we can call on, rely on…. To believe in something or someone shows an effort to reach beyond yourself.?
We hope that this issue of The Fire Inside opens up the conversation
about the diverse meanings of spirituality to people living in prison cages.