Pen Pals

God Behind Bars

By Bert Burykill


A scan of a card handed out to inmates in New York prisons.

I’m not going to pretend that I understand how religion in jail works, ‘cause I really never attended any services, at least I haven't in the past eight years. In 2004, when I first got to the maximum security spot in Beacon, New York, I was on the serious lockdown and heard that I could get out of the cell for church service on the weekend. I’m really not religious or spiritual or anything (I worship money, drugs, bitches and my nuts), but I decided I was a Protestant just so I could break out of the monotonous routine for a bit.

I don’t recall much from back then other than floating like a robot lost in space, but I remember the service. They had an inmate playing the keyboard through a boomin’ sound system, a funky drummer, and a bunch of the congregation feelin’ the Holy Spirit by stomping their feet, clapping their hands, and singing passionately. Even though a lot of them were old and a bunch of them were toothless – a telltale sign of smoking another kind of Holy Ghost – I was impressed. I felt out of place though, and haven’t been back to a Protestant service yet.

When I got to the Shock boot camp a couple months later, they forced us to go to church on Sunday – we got to pick Catholic or Protestant. All my more experienced buddies assured me that the Catholic service would be a more enjoyable function. I guess it was; all we did was sing songs. One of them I still remember and sing to this day: “This is the day/ This is the day/ This is the day/ The Lord has come/ The Lord has come/ The Lord has scome/ Sing Hosanna!/ Sing Hosanna!” Aaahh… The good ol’ days.

The truth of the matter is that at least half of convicts go to religious services for reasons completely unrelated to God. Usually you get the chance to meet up with ‘victs from other blocks who you can’t normally see and sit in the back and talk shit. Other guys go to beg the chaplain, pastor, priest, or whoever for a free phone call or some candy. Occasionally, you'll hear pervasive rumors of a chaplain’s sexual misconduct (big surprise, right?) and I can verify that some shady shit was going on at least once – the priest in question got fired, and even the COs were saying that he was sucking an inmate off. I always imagine even the civilian workers in jail are delinquents of some sort; if they weren’t weirdos, wouldn’t they be working in a friendlier environment? Dentists in prisons, for instance, are notorious for their sadistic tendencies, usually involving pulling teeth when the patient only has a cavity. I once had a doctor squeeze my nuts – he really lacked tact or delicacy – and ask, “Does that hurt?”

I’m not proud to be prejudiced against religious people, but at least when in jail I definitely have a problem with them. It doesn’t matter what faith they’re representing, they usually seem to be delusional or crazy. I’ve lived next to ‘victs who really think they can talk to God and they do so out loud, which to a cracker like me means you’re a few geese short of a gaggle. I think I’ve observed a fairly consistent phenomenon with the religious jailhouse types in which the individual earnestly yearns to be rehabilitated from whatever detrimental behavior he got nabbed for. I’m semi-freestyling here, but I’ve witnessed a few perverted kid-touchers who become super religious because they think that God’s rules will stop them from wanting to diddle babies. In less severe cases, there are hardcore drug addicts who have been doin’ dirty shit – sucking dick, robbing old ladies, smackin’ their mums or whatever – for money to find that fix, and these heads are so desperate for help they’ll even put their faith in God. They think that by simply saying prayers all of their problems will be fixed. Then there's the guys who are just faking it: It’s a well-known prison cliché that the jailhouse Muslims throw their kufis in the trash can on their way home.

Me? I guess I haven’t hit rock bottom yet, ‘cause I don’t believe religion will save me. But my parole officer told me I need to find God and that also I should change my name, as she feels that it is cursed. That seems harsh, a curse, considering I’ve never killed anyone… And do Christians believe in curses? I could definitely see believing in that kind of stuff after you’ve spent a lot of time in prison…

Bert Burykill is the pseudonym of our prison correspondent, who has spent time in a number of prisons in New York State. He tweets here

Previously – HardWhite, an Introduction

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