Jailhouse religion in Lone Star State's toughest lockup raises church-state question

Before I became religion editor of The Oklahoman in the early 2000s, I covered the Oklahoma prison system.

I crunched numbers on the state's increasing parole rate, witnessed Oklahoma's first execution of a woman since statehood and did a narrative feature on "a typical execution day."

But even on the prison beat, I managed to touch on religion in a few stories. One of my most memorable involved a cemetery where forgotten inmates are buried:

McALESTER — Song 176 in the "Baptist Hymnal" flaps in the whistling breeze as five men clad in jeans and light blue inmate shirts surround a pine box.
The simple casket, made of fresh, light wood that reflects the leafy shadow of a cedar tree overhead, contains the remains of Richard Arnold Picha, 61, Oklahoma inmate No. 086428.
The inmate pallbearers and two prison chaplains have come to remember a man they never met.
"Pass me not, O gentle Savior, hear my humble cry," they sing, their emotion-filled voices riding the wind to the cloudless blue sky. "While others Thou are calling, do not pass me by."
This four-acre cemetery, which inmates long ago named "Peckerwood Hill," serves as the final resting place for Oklahoma prisoners who die with no place else to go. It sits a few hundred yards northeast of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. Between 12 and 15 inmates a year are buried here, said Bob Jameson, a state Corrections Department spokesman in McAlester.
Picha's grave will be the 615th since the cemetery opened in 1913.

Fifteen years after trading the prison beat for the Godbeat, I still find stories about "jailhouse religion" fascinating (as, apparently, do a few others — my GetReligion post last year on Jeffrey Dahmer keeps drawing a few hundred clicks a month).

That lengthy introduction leads me to the point of this post: an exclusive Houston Chronicle story on inmate baptisms in Texas' supermax prison.

I have a few questions — pretty major ones — about the Chronicle story, published a few days ago on the newspaper's city-and-state section front. But first, I want to highlight what I liked about this 1,000-word piece. 

And there's a lot to like: It's nicely written. It's filled with specific, revealing details. It's respectful of faith (with quotes that almost make you think you're reading a Christian publication).

The lede captures the essence:

HUNTSVILLE — One by one, the three tattooed toughs were ushered on Friday into the small cinder-block ante room deep inside Texas’ highest-security prison, each shackled at the waist with handcuffs locked to a thick leather belt, flanked by two guards wearing flak vests, police batons and pepper spray.
Then, after “Amazing Grace” was played on a harmonica, each was escorted to a galvanized horse trough filled with water at one end of the stark room, where their handcuffs were removed, the guards still at their sides. Reciting an evangelist’s cadence of blessings and prayers, a prison chaplain then immersed each man in the cool water, proclaiming each to be “God’s children, born again.”
Though back in shackles, the convicts smiled broadly as they were escorted out, trailing water in their soaked prison white uniforms as a small group of prison officials looked on.
“This is my happiest day,” said Davey Enriquez, 33, a former member of the Pistoleros crime gang who is serving a 99-year sentence for committing home invasion robberies in the Texas Panhandle. “I talked to my mom for the first time in six years a few days ago, but I didn’t tell her about this. She’s going to be real surprised.”
The scene inside the Estelle High-Security Unit — baptisms occur occasionally in state prisons, never inside the highest-security lockdown — marked the first fruits of a five-year initiative by state officials to put religion inside the state’s toughest lockups, using convicts with long sentences as ministers to convert other prisoners to turn their lives around by becoming Christians.

So what are my questions?

They're simple, really: The Chronicle never tells readers who's behind these baptisms or who's funding the initiative.

To me, this sketchy background falls short:

Estelle is one of six state prisons where the convict ministers have been deployed, part of a first class of 36 ministers that graduated 10 months ago from a prison seminary established four years ago at the Darrington Unit, outside Rosharon southwest of Houston.
“What I am witnessing here is amazing. We are seeing the Lord at work, changing hearts and lives,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who pushed along with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, to establish the seminary program, which is modeled after a successful similar program in Louisiana. “This goes to show what can happen when you give people another chance.
“And while you may say: ‘I’ll never be free in this world, but I know that I will be free in the next world.’ ”

I want to know if state money is involved. And if it is, how does that not violate the separation of church and state?

Please don't misunderstand: I'm not saying such questions should be the focus of the story. In fact, I applaud for the Chronicle for its willingness to tell a religion story rather than one focused on politics or constitutional law.

Nonetheless, a few more basic facts would help readers understand the big picture. A Google search reveals that the program began in 2011 with backing from Southern Baptists. But even that archived report does not make clear the role of the state or any taxpayer money.

My constructive criticisms aside, the Chronicle story is worth your time, particularly if you're interested in faith behind bars. Check it out.

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