MDiv Student Interviews Prison Inmates on Religious Identity

Written by Kristina Alvarado
May 6, 2015
For the past eleven years, Divinity student Corey Passons has been making regular Monday evening visits with a group of men in the Washington State Reformatory. The prison is located about thirty miles northeast of Corey?s home in Seattle, and houses about 900 men. The group that he attends is a self-directed, non-religious group called the Concerned Lifers Organization (CLO) and focuses mostly on legislative, political, and intra-prison domestic issues such as property rights, medical access, and staff abuse. The group?s diverse membership ranges in age from early twenties to mid-seventies with deep ethnic and religious diversity present at every meeting.

Earlier this past year, Corey asked four men from the group if they would meet with him individually to discuss their religious identity and how they experience interreligious life as an incarcerated person. Corey chose men whom he has known for a long time to help him establish trustworthiness in their accounts. The inmates interviewed were Antonio Wheat, an African-American, Christian male in his early seventies who has served just over fifty years in prison (convicted and sentenced days after his 21st birthday); Arthur Longworth, a Caucasian, Buddhist male in his early fifties who has served just over thirty years in prison (convicted and sentenced when he was 20 years old); Daniel Haldane, a Tsimshian Indian (Tsimshian are traditionally a coastal people of SW Alaska and modern-day British Columbia area) he is in his mid fifties and has served 35 years in prison; Pompeyo Guloy, known as "Umar", a Filipino Muslim male in his mid-fifties who has also served 35 years in prison. All of these men have "life sentences" and three of the four do not have a release date. For those three their sentences are legally defined as ?Life Without The Possibility of Parole.? Corey has reflected on the purely tragic use of the word "life" in these examples and the spiritual implications. He comments: ?In the vernacular sense of having a ?life? sentence you are imprisoned until you die, and in the legal sense of ?life without the possibility of parole,? your life is defined by the ongoing denial of judicial grace.?

Corey acknowledges that his findings are not in any way universal for incarcerated religious persons. Rather, he is honored to share a window into the amalgamated experiences of the men he interviewed as well as his own conclusions developed over his years of attending and listening to the community.

Corey shares that ?These men are devout to their traditions and religious communities. They each, in their own way, made some reference to the depth of connection they have with their faith traditions. They used phrases like, ?serious, practicing, active vs. cultural? to convey this sense of depth and identity. These are men have made enormous efforts toward their religious development during their imprisonment. What I learned in my interviews with these men is that while they would complain about the treatment their religious groups receive from staff and guards, not one of them complained about the sense of community they share between inmates interreligiously.?

Here are some of the ways the inmates expressed their interreligious experience: "Tolerant, accepting, inquisitive... We don't discriminate. We respect each other." Corey comments: ?I've known these men for years and pushed back on this tidy facade of respect they were describing. I got nowhere. They described a truly tolerant, interdependent, functional, and active interreligious community.?

Corey asked about their reasons for choosing tolerance and respect: "We protect each other. We live together, 24 hours a day; we are not separated. There is more support when we are together; it's mutually beneficial." Corey comments: ?The prison is their home, their Earth, for the rest of their lives, they moderate it to be as amenable as they are able to make it. This mandates interreligious respect and community; it demands a radical, intentional sense of community based on social necessity.?

How? How do the inmates create and foster this sense of community? What makes it work? One of the men commented: "We don't proselytize each other. We welcome each other in all chapel services,'s not about the crime, it's about the person. We don't war with each other like they do on the outside. There's lots of exposure, everyday. Every year we have an annual gathering of all the religious groups to celebrate each other."

Corey shares: ?The methodology of this interreligious community is based in the profound simplicity of the Golden Rule and the Gospel response to the question of, ?Who is my neighbor?? It is brought about by the discipline of respectful engagement with others and is fueled by an internal response to become a better person through living out a life in this ethic. So without idealizing the overall hellish experience of being incarcerated, let us acknowledge, appreciate and learn from the presence of a functional, tolerant, engaged interreligious community as reported by these men I interviewed and have known for many years.?

Throughout his interviews with the inmates, Corey asked each of them to explore the topic of hope with him both from a personal perspective (historically and present) and from the perspective of their faith tradition. Their insights are profound and Corey will be exploring their answers in his future work. Stay tuned for more soon!

Corey is grateful for the richness of the experience, as a part of his sharing life with the inmates over the past decade. He says: ?The four men I interviewed have ignored the implication of their "life without" sentences and engaged in the primary interreligious dialogues of life, action, and shared religious experience. I am thankful for their example and note how the successful harmony of these primary forms of interreligious dialogue establish depth and potential for theological exchange.?

He summarizes some of what he found with these words: ?The primary form of interreligious dialogue among these incarcerated men is the dialogue of life. These men have subverted the tragic irony of their sentence of ?life without? into a mode of being that is life-giving through cooperation in shared sacred space, need for protection, and mutuality through cooperation.?

Last month, Corey presented a paper on his interviews and their impact on his theological encounters as a minister in training at Boston College's Graduate Student Conference on Comparative Theology and Interreligious Dialogue, entitled ?Engaging Particularities? on March 26-27. His paper was entitled ?The Interreligious Lives of the Incarcerated: An Exploration of Hope with Four Men of Different Faiths Serving Life Sentences.?

Corey Passons is a Master of Divinity student in Seattle University?s School of Theology and Ministry, and is a candidate for graduation in June of 2016. Corey serves as a Graduate Assistant for the school?s Ecumenical and Interreligious Dialogue initiatives. He is a Member in Discernment for Ordination within the United Church of Christ, and works with All Pilgrims Christian Church in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle as a part of his Contextual Education internship experiences.