How unconventional religions spread behind bars


When Daniel Genis entered the New York State prison system to begin serving a decade-long sentence in 2004, he was asked to declare his faith by making a check next to one in a long list of them.

On the list handed to Genis by a prison guard were mainstream options such as Christianity, Islam and Judaism, but there were also more exotic options such as Odinism and Rastafarianism.  There was even an option to declare himself as an adherent of the Nation of Gods and Earths, which was long known as a gang but gained standing as a religion through protracted court battles.  He could have chosen to honestly identify as an atheist, but chose instead to identify with his father’s heritage: Judaism.

Genis got a first-hand look at how religion is spread throughout prison, often in dishonest ways.  He describes evangelicals as using the desperation of the prisoners to add to the number of adherents for their faiths.  Prisoners change faiths so often that rules have been instated allowing no more than one “conversion” per year.  Daniel Genis writes eloquently about his stint in prison and attributes the high numbers of religious inmates to a lack of education. “The incarcerated world,” Genis writes, “is one where leaps of faith are taken with ease.”

The biggest surprise, Genis maintains, was the huge number of religions represented behind bars, and the relative dearth of atheists.  During his prison term, he says he spoke to those who were members of Opus Dei and the Moorish Science Temple, as well as some Druids and “a surprisingly nice Satanist.”  His exposure to other religions included meeting Wiccans, Hebrew Israelites and even a Jedi that Genis describes as a “charming fellow” (who also happened to have committed a brutal murder).


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