Before I became religion editor of The Oklahoman in the early 2000s, I covered the Oklahoma prison system.
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 intro leads me to the point of this post: an exclusive Houston Chronicle story on inmate baptisms in Texas' supermax prison.