Prison - Teaching Prisoners

You are free to accept declarations of faith from inmates of a prison, but their participation as voting believer can take place only after they have been discharged from prison. The fact of having been in prison does not deprive a Bahá’í from exercising his voting rights when he is released and there is no need for a probationary period. however if there is some other factor which would indicate to the national Assembly that in a particular case the voting rights should be suspended, the National Assembly may then exercise its discretion.

Universal House of Justice, Lights of Guidance, p. 75

Although Assemblies are discouraged from initiating teaching projects in prisons, it is inevitable that some believers will have served prison sentences or become incarcerated and that some will enroll while in prison.

USA- NSA, Guidelines for Local Spiritual Assemblies, Chapter 14, p. 36

Bahá’ís who are prisoners may participate in Bahá’í activities permitted by law and their circumstances. The National Spiritual Assembly has adopted the policies, however, that Local Spiritual Assemblies will not be formed in prisons, prisoners may not vote for or serve on Assemblies, and copies of The American Bahá’í will not be sent to prisoners. Whatever the degree of the prisoner's freedom to participate in Bahá’í community life, this vital point, as stated by the Universal House of Justice, should be borne in mind: "A prisoner may never have the opportunity to attend a Bahá’í function yet he may achieve to its fullest his relationship and obedience to the Will of God and His Manifestations."

NSA USA - Developing Distinctive Bahá’í Communities

Prisoners who wish to be enrolled as Bahá’ís should be encouraged, but not required as such, to submit in writing their declaration of faith. Since Bahá’í Declaration cards are not readily available in prisons and Assemblies are not always accessible to prisoners, expressing their acceptance of Bahá’u’lláh in writing is a direct way for prisoners to make their intentions known and enables the institutions to sense the person's understanding of the Faith. Nonetheless, wherever possible, Spiritual Assemblies should arrange to have their representatives interview the new declarants in prison in order to make certain that they are acquainted with basic information about the Faith.

NSA USA - Developing Distinctive Bahá’í Communities

The following suggestions are offered as an assistance to those who may find themselves in the position of working with or teaching prisoners:

1. It is often more effective to work with prisoners of one's own gender, particularly in a one-on-one setting. Since prisoners are segregated by gender, they may be more easily distracted by someone of the opposite gender than they would be outside of prison.

2. Care should be taken to dress appropriately. In a setting where all prisoners wear a uniform color of coveralls, they may find a business suit intimidating or overly casual clothing to be distracting.

3. Respect the privacy of the prisoner by not asking what he did to be incarcerated, though it is entirely possible that the prisoner will share this information on his own.

4. Since prisoners are exposed to many negative attitudes and behaviors, it is important to maintain a positive attitude when conversing with them. It is especially important not to give the appearance of criticizing other religious or ethnic groups or the prison administration.

5. Prisoners should clearly understand that becoming a Bahá’í is an expression of religious belief and that they should not expect that the Bahá’í community will provide them with either career education or a job when they are released from prison.

6. It is helpful to know what resources are available to prisoners in the prison itself. For example, many prisoners have a history of substance abuse, and most prisons and jails have treatment programs. In addition, many prisons offer education programs to assist prisoners in getting high school and college degrees as well as professional training.

7. Check with the prison administration in advance before bringing any refreshments or publications into the prison.

8. Use discretion in giving out any telephone numbers and addresses to prisoners, keeping in mind that this information may fall into the hands of other prisoners who may abuse it. Under no circumstances should a prisoner, whether enrolled as a Bahá’í or not, be provided with a community membership list, nor should community newsletters be sent to prisoners.

9. Be careful not to make promises to prisoners that cannot be fulfilled. This will only disappoint them and cause disillusionment. Some prisoners may ask for help in contacting friends and family who are not accepting their collect calls or answering their letters. Again, discretion should be exercised in the handling of such requests as the parties may have good reasons for not responding to the prisoner.

10. If a prisoner who is a Bahá’í is scheduled to be released from prison soon, consult with the prison administration and social service agencies in the area about what services, such as shelter, healthcare and employment, might be available to him upon his release.

11. Treat prisoners with respect and dignity. Ask about their interests, values and enjoyable activities. If a prisoner feels that someone is genuinely interested in his well-being, he may have more credibility in your confidence in him that he can reform his life through the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh.

NSA USA - Developing Distinctive Bahá’í Communities

The National Spiritual Assembly feels that it is in the best interest of the Faith in the United States at this time to discourage Spiritual Assemblies, committees and individual believers from initiating teaching projects in prisons. It sometimes happens, however, that a believer's professional or volunteer work will bring them in contact with prisoners who may inquire about the Bahá’í Faith. While individuals are not prohibited from teaching prisoners, they should regard this activity as a personal project in much the same way as teaching the Faith at a fireside in one's home. Bahá’ís in prison are, of course, free to teach their religion to fellow prisoners.

NSA USA - Developing Distinctive Bahá’í Communities