Virtual Voices

Prison preacher

Religion

Seven years after convicted murderer Wesley Spratt started preaching in the chapel of his maximum-security prison, Warden James Weeden made a new rule: Prisoners couldn't preach.

Weeden said the preaching compromised prison security: "People behind a pulpit are in a position of power. … And people behind a pulpit, of all faiths, have abused that power." Spratt sued Weeden for violating his religious freedom, and the American Civil Liberties Union helped him win the case this summer.

Mark Earley, president of Prison Fellowship, told WoW he disagrees with Weeden: "It's important not only to have volunteers coming in from the outside to lead inmates, but it's also important to have leaders who are inmates." These inmates may not have official titles (he notes that Spratt does not), but "they lead by their life example and their love for the other inmates."

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Rev. James Turnipseed leads the chapel services and said that Spratt is the most zealous inmate he has ever met. But Michael Naylor, the victim's brother and a former prison guard, is cynical about Spratt's sincerity: "Everyone finds God in prison. They seem to lose it as soon as they walk out the door." (In 2019, Spratt will be eligible for parole.)

Earley said some conversions are sincere. Prison Fellowship's InnerChange Freedom Initiative includes a 6-12 month aftercare program that provides mentoring and requires ex-inmates to work and attend church to qualify for graduation. A University of Pennsylvania study found evidence of change: Inmates who graduated from IFI had an 8% recidivism rate compared to a 20% recidivism rate in a similar group.

Earley said every place has natural leaders. In prison, there can be leaders of violence, "or there can be leaders for Jesus who serve, care and love the other inmates." Earley said he would encourage Spratt to "let his life demonstrate the love of Jesus."

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