If a prisoner who practiced the Sikh religion asked to wear a kirpan (small dagger), saying he needed to wear the kirpan to express his religious faith, must prison officials grant the request?
No, it is likely that prison officials could refuse this request, even if motivated by sincere religious belief, because of legitimate safety concerns. The courts grant a good deal of discretion to prison officials when it comes to safety considerations. Safety is a paramount concern in prisons and is termed a legitimate penological interest.
Should society care about inmates' religious rights?
Whatever legal standard is used to resolve inmate freedom-of-religion lawsuits, some in society ask: “Who cares?” Many people believe that inmates forfeited their rights when they committed their crimes. But others believe society should try to encourage inmates to practice their religious faith.
“Let’s face it. Most inmates do get out of prison at some point,” says David Fahti, a prison expert. “And the single best predictor of whether an inmate will do OK when they reenter society is whether they maintain community ties when they are in prison.
“There are many reasons why we should recognize the religious rights of inmates,” Fahti says. “Our country was founded on principles of religious freedom. Many people came to this country to flee religious persecution in other countries. As long as a prisoner’s practice of religion does not interfere with prison security, there is simply no reason to deny an inmate’s religious rights.
Adds Keith Defasio, a prisoners'-rights advocate, “Even though inmates are incarcerated for crimes, they should still be entitled to their constitutional dignities. Where are we as a democracy if we can give and take away constitutional rights?”