"I don't know if you believe in God, but..."
I think it's interesting that the only time my patients feel me out on a topic is when they're about to bring up religion. They don't ask my opinion about the war on drugs before they talk about their unfair sentence for drug possession. They don't ask my opinion about feminism or domestic violence before bringing up "that b--- who got me locked up". They don't ask my opinion about homosexuality before talking about the partner they're horribly homesick for. So why do they need affirmation or permission to discuss religion?
Religion is a touchy subject even out in free society, but even more so in correctional facilities. Religious affiliations tend to split along racial and other cultural lines, from paganist skinheads to the Nation of Islam. Celling both together can cause problems. Wise (ie older) inmates generally know not to preach to their cellmates and not to get into arguments with the ones who do.
From an institutional standpoint accomodating a wide variety of religious practices can also be a challenge---try getting a kosher diet for someone in maximum security who's been ordered on nutriloaf restrictions, or a hallal meal for Muslims, in combination with whatever other medical dietary restrictions they may be on. While every facility generally has a chaplain, there is no guarantee that the chaplain will be of your particular faith. Religious services may or may not be available, or may only be available every month or so.
The thing that got me interested in this topic recently was running across Sister Frankie*** yesterday morning. Sister Frankie is one of our institutional chaplains and a fixture---I might even say a legend at this point---in the region. When I first started working in her facility the inmates kept greeting me as "sister", which I didn't think too much about at the time because among my patients everybody seemed to be everybody else's "sister". It wasn't until an inmate stopped me in the hallway and asked me to pray for her that it hit me---I was Sister Frankie's doppelganger. I had never met the woman but I recognized her the instant I saw her speeding down the hallway. I stopped, spun around and said, "You're Sister Frankie!" I had to explain that apparently all of us short grey-haired folks look alike.
Anyway, it was a good comparison. She is tough as nails and irrepressibly cheerful. She's hung in there for years and shows no signs of burning out. I can only hope to pick up her good habit(s).
Not her real name. Duh.