Credit: (Illustration by Devon Bowman)

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Ever since the D.C. Jail opened in 1976, inmates have worshipped in Room 159—a plain, square space almost everyone referred to as the chapel. The Catholic Archdiocese of Washington donated folding chairs and seasonal coverings for the wooden altar. An inmate choir sang hymns at five Christian services every Sunday, and inmate volunteers ushered worshippers to their seats.

“It was really church,” says Evelyn Manson, who served as the jail’s assistant chaplain from 1994 until 2005.

But Room 159 isn’t what it used to be. After a jailbreak last summer, the D.C. Department of Corrections canceled all religious gatherings in the room and then, a few months later, allowed only certain smaller religious groups to return. Protestants, who represent more than 80 percent of the jail population, were left to hold services in the 18 cellblocks, which hold up to 160 residents each.

Manson says the units, where inmates watch TV, talk on the phone, and get in fights while services are happening, are “no place for church,” especially compared to what they once had.

“The worship service literally changed some of their thoughts about some of the things they came there for,” Manson says about the effects of the chapel worship. “I think some of them were transformed.”

The June 2006 escape forced jail officials to fix what appeared to be gaping lapses in security. Two inmates, both charged in connection with a murder, jumped to their short-lived freedom by busting a window in the warden’s office and sliding down a canopy (“Blues Brothers,” 7/14/2006). Corrections director Devon Brown fired 11 jail staffers after an internal investigation blamed the escape, in part, on employee negligence.

But the reforms didn’t end with the jail’s workforce. Brown also clamped down on inmate movement. He canceled Saturday visits and told volunteers he intended to stop all worship services in the chapel, even though Room 159 didn’t figure into the escape.

One of the volunteers, Clayton Lewis, an associate minister at the First Baptist Church of Glenarden in Landover, initially agreed to give the department’s new plan a try. He understood the impulse to fret over large gatherings. He just asked that the issue be revisited if it didn’t work.

Instead, Lewis says, the jail allowed select groups to return to the chapel and refused to reconsider its decision.

The groups allowed back in the chapel, the Department of Corrections confirms, included Sunni Muslims, Catholics, and “Hispanics.”

The department offered the rationale that Protestants, having a larger number of volunteers and worshippers, simply presented a greater risk than the relatively smaller groups allowed back in. It offered no rationale for including an ethnic group among the two religious groups allowed back in the chapel.

Moving Protestants to the units meant holding more than a dozen smaller services instead of three larger ones in the chapel. “We went in, and it’s a nightmare, it really is,” Lewis says. “We’ve gotta holler and scream just to teach something.”

Lewis recalls a recent Sunday morning service for about eight inmates gathered on the cement floor surrounded by two floors of cellblocks. The 51-year-old minister strained to raise his voice above the din of television sets, telephone conversations, and the percussion of one inmate drumming with a sneaker on the duct work in his cell. A corrections officer came up and told Lewis he needed to keep it down.

When he got home that afternoon, Lewis called the jail’s director of chaplain services, the Rev. Betty Green, and said, “This is not going to work.”

Green said, according to Lewis, that the department director wouldn’t budge: “She said, ‘You’re not getting back in the chapel. That’s final.’ ”

Lewis wasn’t the only one getting frustrated. Geraldine Watson, a former jail nurse who also volunteered in the chapel, started hearing complaints about the canceled services from her patients at D.C. General Hospital’s ambulatory clinic. “I see a lot of inmates coming through, and they told me they were not able to go to church services,” she says. “I just couldn’t believe it.”

Watson doesn’t see the connection between the jailbreak and closing the chapel. “We go to church to relieve ourselves of the burdens and whatever stresses we may have during the week, so that we can make it through another week,” she says. “The inmates have the same spiritual needs that you and I have, and in fact more so. And I’ll tell you something else. The Gideon people use to come in and hand out Bibles, little pocket-size Bibles. [The jail] stopped that, too.”

Several Protestant volunteers testified on the subject at a March 8 D.C. Council oversight meeting for the corrections department. At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson, chair of the public safety committee, asked Brown whether he anticipated any legal challenges to the separate policies for different religions.

“I think we’ll be able to meet any legal challenge towards that end,” Brown said, defending the policy as a way of avoiding future escape attempts.

In a written statement responding to questions from Washington City Paper, Brown said he had formed a working group to “ensure there is a fair and equitable system for meeting the religious needs of the inmate population.” The group’s decision, he said, is expected by mid-April.