In an earlier mormonmatters post (here), I examined the rise of Mormons as criminal defendants in court opinions. Not surprisingly, most LDS criminals do not give up their religious affiliation once they go behind the wall. Instead, they find themselves with plenty of time on their hands. They often use that time to act as their own lawyers. What are the deprivations over which Mormon prisoners have gone to court? How do they compare with other similar American religions?
I counted about 25 Mormon prisoner cases, dating back to the 1960s. The Seventh-Day Adventists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses had slightly more (34 cases each). The Christian Scientists had fewer – four cases.
It is interesting to see how spread out the LDS prison population is from these cases. In the late 1960s, a Mormon named, Kenneth Taylor, an inmate at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, sued because prison regulation forbade his receipt of the Deseret News . A few years later, Edward Fallis, incarcerated within the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, objected to the refusal by prison authorities to allow Mormon Family Home Evenings whereby a Mormon elder and his family would “adopt” a convict and visit him in prison for counseling . On behalf of himself and 101 other prisoners, Jack David Stovall, an inmate at Fountain Correctional Center in Atmore, Alabama, sought LDS religious services in the prison .
Over the next 20 years, Melvin A. McCabe and Mark Madsen, inmates of the Idaho State Correctional Institution, filed a lawsuit seeking to conduct LDS worship services in the prison chapel, to hold LDS group study classes; to hold banquets on religious holidays; to distribute literature of the Church, to confer with LDS ministers on a personal and group basis; to grow facial hair, to have special dietary considerations, and to receive and keep in their possession all Church books and pamphlets . Similarly, James Allen Boyd, an Arizona state prisoner, claimed that the Mormon Church mandated that he study scriptures with his wife daily, hold family prayer with his wife daily, hold family home evenings with his wife weekly, and “render physical affection to his wife while he is in prison” . Andre Brigham Young, a civilly committed patient at the Special Commitment Center at Monroe, Washington, a resident treatment facility for persons civilly committed pursuant to Washington’s Sexually Violent Predators Act, claimed he was denied the assistance of a Mormon religious volunteer . Paul D. Gibbs, a Michigan state prisoner alleged that as a Mormon, he was a target of assaults by black gangs at his institution . The most recent lawsuit involved an Arkansas inmate who challenged the prison limitation on one religious book, claiming that, as a Mormon, he needed both a Bible and a Book of Mormon to worship properly .
The Adventists prison lawsuits have mainly involved food – pork-free of vegetarian  – or relief from having to work on Saturday . A few went further and requested access to books and religious publications , music cassettes , Adventist religious services , communion and foot washing , the right to view the Adventist “Three Angels” television network , and to be free from unwanted sexual contact . The Jehovah’s Witnesses lawsuits sought meetings , religious materials , photocopying privileges , relief from certain medical procedures , and relief from the rules that forbade talking about religion with fellow inmates . Like one of the Adventist prisoners, a Jehovah’s inmate sought relief from unwanted sexual contact . Another wanted to practice Tai Chi . One Witness prisoner claimed that he could not practice his faith sufficiently unless he was allowed out of prison on weekends to knock on doors . The Christian Scientist inmates alleged improper transfer based on their religion , and forced medical procedures .
Are there currently enough Mormon outlets in prison? While Mormon prisoners in Utah have sued over the lack of LDS chapel and educational activities , several have claimed there was too much, suing based on the claim that Mormon prisoners enjoyed preferential treatment . A Hawaii prisoner sought to join the club without officially joining, falsely claiming to be a Mormon because it would have entitled him to certain types of activities and benefits .
To be sure, prison can be a spiritual life-changing event of some Mormons. Remember my earlier statement about how most Mormons do not give up their religious affiliation when they go to prison? Some do. A few became Muslims after they were in for a few years .
A Connecticut prisoner went through what was arguably a more significant transformation. Originally an enthusiastic Mormon, Michael Scatena in 2000 brought a lawsuit over the prison’s failure to provide him access to certain materials in the practice of his LDS faith. He claimed that he has requested a self-help Mormon Religious Instruction book and a Mormon religious cassettes both of which are available at no cost through the use of an 800 number, along with a tape player, without success . A year later, after several disciplinary infractions and a transfer to another prison, he sued again, this time with a complaint filled with anti-Semitism. He sought non-rabbinical food and liquid staples that are free of the Jewish religious kosher food symbols known as “(U)” and “K” and, second, to provide him with a raw fruitarian diet (in the form of a vegetarian diet) as prescribed by the World Church of the Creator, a white supremacist organization. He argued he was neither Jewish, nor did he wish to participate in any Jewish religious customs, such as being forced to consume food and liquid staples “along with the common fare or regular diet the Department of Corrections [department] serves because they violate his religious beliefs as a member of the [World Church] and as a former Mormon” .
Prisoner lawsuits rarely get attention. Most are brought in federal court, and they make for some of the most banal controversies for U.S. District Court judges (much like asylum cases for the U.S. Courts of Appeal). Still, they are interesting for what they say about one aspect of overlooked Mormon culture. My sense is that if simple requests like free Mormon tapes will prevent prisoners from becoming white supremacists, it seems a small price to pay.