Prisons are often characterised by the co-existence of detainees belonging to diverse religions, as well as detainees who do not adhere to any religion. Under international human rights law, “everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”. This applies equally to detainees and means that they have the right to choose and change their religion, as well as the opportunity to manifest their religion in worship, observance, practice and teaching in detention. Religious indoctrination and forcible religious conversion of detainees are contrary to the freedom of religion in prisons.
The right to religion in prison applies to all recognised religions and should not be restricted to the main religions in the country. It should not be the role of prison authorities to decide what is a religion and what is not. This will normally be decided by the competent state authorities and national courts.
The extent to which the right to religion is respected in prisons often reflects the level of religious freedom in society at large. In countries with a state religion where religious freedom is severely restricted, the freedom of religion in prisons is less likely to be ensured in practice.
Prison staff should not discriminate against persons because of their religious beliefs and all religions should be treated equally. In no circumstances should staff make derogatory comments about a person’s religious beliefs or practices. Prison staff should respect for detainees’ religious beliefs, objects and practices. Prison chaplains (religious representatives) can share aspects and foster an understanding of their religion among both detainees and staff. There should be no favouritism: detainees adhering to certain religion(s) should not receive advantages over others.
Detainees also have the right not to adhere to any religion. Detainees should not be required to practice a religion or belief, to attend religious services or meetings, to take part in religious practices or to accept a visit from a representative of any religion. Detainees who do not have a religion should not suffer any disadvantage because of this.
The only permissible restrictions on the right to religion are for reasons of security and good order (including safety and the requirements of communal living). It is not uncommon that these are cited as reasons to restrict the observance of religious requirements (for example prohibiting certain haircuts required by a religion because dangerous objects can be hidden in them). However, for restrictions to be justified there should be a clear link between the restriction and the legitimate correctional interest and it should be applied equally to all religions. It is also relevant to consider whether there are other ways for detainees to exercise their rights and solutions that can accommodate both interests. There should be no restrictions on the freedom of religion for disciplinary purposes (either restricting the right to exercise ones religion or requiring a detainees’ participation in religion activities).
Standards provide that one or more chaplains (representatives of a religion) should be appointed if the number of detainees of the same religion in the prison is sufficient. The number of approved chaplains should be proportionate to the number of detainees claiming to practice that religion. However, this obligation only extends to chaplains who agree to abide by public order rules of prison and if the religion puts forward qualified representatives. Chaplains of recognised religions should have equal status – e.g. access to the same facilities.
Any detainee requesting should be entitled to receive visits in private from a qualified religious representative of any religion (also religions for which there is no appointed prison chaplain). This includes if the detainee is immobile. Religious representatives should thus be authorised to move around freely within areas where persons held in custody are accommodated, to hold personal discussions with these persons, and have material resources for this purpose at their disposal. In some contexts, the privacy of communication and correspondence between detainees and religious representatives is protected. Detainees who do not wish to be visited by a chaplain should not be obliged to receive such a visit.
Detainees should be able to gather as a group for collective prayer, religious meetings and festive occasions linked to the religious calendar. Prison chaplains should be able to hold regular religious services. Premises designed for collective prayers or services should be provided - they should be large enough and fitted out for their intended purpose. They should be available for different religions, according to a timetable to suit the wishes of chaplains and accepted by the director. These facilities should ideally be used exclusively for holding services and religious meetings – where this is not possible, a minimum of disturbance should be assured. Premises should also be available to accommodate celebrations of recognised religious festivals. Authorities should be informed of a timetable and provide necessary facilities.
To ensure the possibility for detainees to participate in religious activities, a list of detainees’ names with their religious affiliation should be drawn up and maintained by the prison authorities, subject to data protection/confidentiality. This should be updated based on information from chaplains and events (e.g. transfers) to avoid delays in participation. Detainees have the right to change their religion and have no religion. Authorities should not use the fact that a person is registered on the list as grounds for declining the request to attend an event of another religious organisation.
Detainees should be allowed to keep in their possession religious books; religious signs and symbols; and religious objects. Respect should be shown for all religious objects. Staff may need to be trained to recognise these. In some prisons, there are problems of disappearance of, or damage to, religious objects, or staff behaviour that demonstrates contempt towards them.
Detainees should have the possibility of observing the requirements of their religion. This includes praying, reading religious texts, wearing specific clothing, grooming and washing as often as their religion requires. This may mean providing facilities for detainees to pray or carry out washing practices (for example using a wash basin in the cell).
Religions may impose rules on followers on what and when they can eat and drink. Prisons should be organised in a way that they can provide menus that meet the special dietary requirements. The option of fasting should be available (taking into account health considerations and the smooth running of institution). An example of a positive practice is providing warm food at the times when fasting detainees are able to eat.
A supply of meats and other food stuffs prepared according to rites approved by religious authorities should be sought and used as far as possible. Contracts can also be concluded with outside providers and/or staff preparing and serving food can be trained on specific requirements of food preparation. At the same time, persons who do not observe a religion should not be subject to dietary restrictions based on religious considerations.
The issue of food is of fundamental importance to people deprived of their liberty. If food does not meet requirements, there is a risk of: people not eating enough or artificially changing eating habits (people eating vegetarian when they have no desire to refrain from eating meat). If arrangements cannot immediately be made to offer menus compatible with religious requirements, then intermediate measures should be taken, including: prison chaplains should be authorised to bring quantities of food stuffs into the prison; and a wider range of other products should be offered in canteens.
The right to religion in prison applies equally to all recognised religions and not only the mainstream religions in a country. In practice, detainees subscribing to minority religions (for example, certain persons belonging to minority groups, foreign nationals or indigenous persons) may face barriers exercising this right, due to discrimination and/or a lack of awareness. Detainees from minority religions may also be vulnerable to religious indoctrination or forced conversions, through recognised programmes or by other detainees (e.g. belonging to better represented religions in the prison). Particular attention should thus be paid by the authorities to religious freedom for minority religions, including indigenous forms of worship.
Women detainees have the same right to choose, change and practice their religion as male detainees. International standards require prison authorities to recognise that women detainees from different religious and cultural backgrounds can have distinctive needs and may face multiple forms of discrimination in their access to gender and culture relevant programmes and services. In practice, women may have less access to religious activities and places of workshop, due to a lack of available facilities and priority given to the male detainee population.
International standards specify that “Every juvenile should be allowed to satisfy the needs of his or her religious and spiritual life”. This means that children and young people detained in prison should have the same opportunities to choose, change and exercise their religion as adults. In particular they should be able to:
- attend the services or meetings provided in the detention facility;
- conduct their own services;
- have in their possession of the necessary books or items of religious observance and instruction of his or her denomination; and
- receive visits from a qualified representative of any religion.
A religious representative should be approved or appointed if there are a sufficient number of detainees adhering to a certain religion in a juvenile detention facility.
Young detainees may be particularly susceptible to religious indoctrination and prison authorities should refrain from and ensure they are protected from this. Juveniles should have the right not to adhere to a religion, not to participate in religious services and freely to decline religious education.
Persons with mental and physical disabilities should enjoy the same right to freedom of religion as other detainees in prisons. Prison authorities should make reasonable accommodation to ensure that detainees with physical disabilities have access to religious activities and places of worship. Persons with mental disabilities may be more susceptible to religious indoctrination in the prison setting. Prison authorities should ensure that this does not take place.