McNeil Island Prison Inmates Keep the Faiths

August 13, 2008

Author: Ian Demsky

Source: The News Tribune

Arlen Lopez grew up Catholic but came to question some of the tenets of that faith, such as the emphasis on the Virgin Mary and the ability of confession to wash away sin. Although he now thinks of himself simply as a Christian, he says he's still Catholic at heart.

"It's in the blood," Lopez, 41, said in a recent interview. "I can't change my culture. I can't say that I'm not Hispanic when I'm Hispanic."

On paper, he is officially a Catholic/Pentecostal.

Lopez is one of more than 40 inmates at the McNeil Island Corrections Center who declared multiple religions after a controversial policy change last year, records show.

Inmates across the state won the right to declare multiple faiths after an inmate who was both an American Indian practitioner and a Seventh-day Adventist sued, arguing that the Department of Corrections was illegally restrictive.

The rule change prompted Tom Suss, McNeil's longtime chaplain, to resign. Suss, a Catholic priest in addition to a state employee, said his job would have forced him to go against his beliefs in working with inmates he thought were espousing contradictory combinations such as being Catholic and pagan simultaneously.

Suss' departure was covered by The News Tribune earlier this year. We also reached out to inmates who had declared multiple religions for their perspective. On a recent afternoon, Lopez and two other men shared their inmate's-eye view of the new rule.