Joe Herzanek, a chaplain for the Boulder County Jail, starts his day like many in the working world: checking his messages. Only for Herzanek, these come in the form of written inmate requests called a kite, seeking religious materials and spiritual guidance — from Buddhist prayer beads, rosary, to a copy of the Mormon Bible or a prayer rug.
“Some days I’m like the Maytag repair man, looking for something to do,” Herzanek said. “Other days, I have 25 kites.”
Answering these calls are among ways that the jail, located at 3200 Airport Road, seeks to accommodate inmates’ religious practices. With the facility’s population ever changing, the spectrum of worship requests is as colorful as stained glass and a reflection of a revolving door of inmates and the cultures from which they come.
In addition to Bible studies and prayers groups, the jail has seen a recent renewed interest in Islam. Other practices include Buddhist meditation and Mormonism. Honoring these requests not only abides by the inmates’ constitutional rights, but has provided a sense of comfort and in some cases a moral compass for life after time served.
“We believe that faith in a God is a powerful influence for change, we hope,” Herzanek said. “A lot of guys, even though they may not have been connected on the outs, you might say, they may tend to come back to their faith when they come here and see they need some help to get their life back on track.”
Herzanek is one of two part-time chaplains staffed by the jail. The chaplains are non-denominational and seek to provide spiritual guidance and support to inmates. They also act as liaisons between local religious leaders and inmates. Roughly 30 volunteers from eight churches visit jail inmates for worship. This includes an Imam, a person who leads prayer in a mosque, a couple of times a week. Some of these partners also donate worship materials to the jail.
‘A priority here’
For the past 25 years, Herzanek has worked inside the walls of Colorado jails as a chaplain. Before his four years of service with the Boulder County Jail, he worked in facilities in Adams County, Weld County and Larimer County. With this experience, he praised Boulder County for being one of the most accommodating to various religions.
“It’s a priority here,” Herzanek said. “Every morning, there’s a schedule that goes out to all the housing units. It tells each officer in every work station what groups are going to be coming in and to put out sign up sheets for inmates to sign up to attend — whether it’s Catholic mass or Christian Bible study.”
According to the Boulder County Jail Policy Manual, inmates’ constitutional rights are protected while they are in custody. This includes “freedom of religious beliefs and speech.”
Tim Oliveira, support service commander for the jail, said authorities honor the multitude of religious practices requested, so long as it does not jeopardize the safety of inmates or staff workers, a concept echoed in the manual. Considering how the practice might impact mental health is also a factor, Herzanek said.
For those that wish to practice a form of religion that is not listed on the jail’s schedule, they must contact Herzanek to put in a request for religious guidance. If jail staff can’t find a spiritual leader willing to come to the jail, they may be able to get the inmate reading materials.
“It’s not always easy to get every faith in here,” Oliveira said. “We ask and if they want to come in, they’re welcome to come in. It really depends on the group.”
When asked if the jail had seen requests for Satanic worship or other less traditional forms of religion, Herzanek said those were few and far between.
“To be honest, we haven’t had much request for Satanism or witch craft,” Herzanek said. “We’ve not had to deal with that, really.”
Occasionally, Oliveira said the jail has seen a request for Wicca, a nature-based Pagan religion. Some, like requests for Asatru, a belief in Germanic spirits and worship of gods like Thor, can be “tricky” for accommodation, because of white supremacy groups, according to Oliveira, “subscribing to misbeliefs around the religion.”
“We have to look at each thing and see, what is reasonable? What can we do safely?” Oliveira said. “We have to be open, there’s constitutional law that drives that. We don’t automatically say ‘no’ without knowing what they are talking about.”
Dinner plates to prayer groups
At the state prison level, an inmate has filed suit in 1995 when he couldn’t practice Satanic rituals. Robert Howard, who was in custody at the Federal Correctional Institution Englewood, claimed to be a humanistic Satanist. Howard said he did not participate in bloodletting rituals, violence or animal sacrifice. He requested use of a gong, incense, black robe and tool for pointing — all items already utilized by other religious groups in the prison. In the end, a court ruled that Howard had the right to practice this form of worship.
In the Boulder County Jail, inmates’ religious practices extend beyond a room for worship into the kitchen. Diets and specific foods that are part of spiritual faith are accommodated, too. While the jail doesn’t have the resources for a Kosher kitchen, packaged meals are prepared in advance to give to inmates. Staff also honor standards for Halal meals, a Muslim practice, which necessitate honoring certain rituals for the butchering of meat. For those observing Ramadan, also a Muslim practice that includes fasting and reflecting, staff can bring a meal to the inmate before sun up and one after sunset.
From dinner plates to prayer groups and religious sacraments, the jail’s protection of religious freedoms while in custody has the capacity to offer comfort to both the inmate and their family. That, combined with the potential to help them once they’re released, speaks to the numerous benefits to allowing worship in jail, Herzanek said.
“A lot of the times it extends beyond these walls,” Herzanek said.