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Religious minorities protest Virginia prison policies that keep them from practicing their faith

Growing up in Southwest Virginia, Bruce Estes had few opportunities to learn about and practice his family’s religious traditions. In fact, they told no one they were Jews.

“The closest schul that I’m aware of was probably there at Virginia Tech – Chabad House, maybe in Lexington, Kentucky and of course in Boone, North Carolina they have Temple of the High Country.”

But as he matured, Estes took a growing interest in Judaism and began keeping kosher – buying foods that had been prepared in ways dictated by the Torah. He never ate pork or shellfish, and he was careful not to mix meat and dairy during a meal. When he was sent to prison for drug offenses he planned to continue that tradition.

“There are a lot of ways I cannot be observant in prison, but this is one of the ways I can be.”

When the state refused to provide him with kosher meals, Estes went to court.

“In 2015 myself and Don East, another Jewish inmate, filed a lawsuit in federal court. I was represented by the law firm of Morse and Forster in New York, and it was settled finally in 2018, so we are provided kosher at this time.”

The Department of Corrections says it has 559 Jewish inmates in its prisons, but five thousand prisoners have requested kosher meals, a fact that does not surprise Estes.

“In prison you get a lot of guys seeing somebody get something different, and they want it.”

That’s a potential problem for the prison system which spends $2.20 a day to feed most inmates but shells out $9.13 per day for those on the kosher diet.

Estes also welcomes about 40 guys to a weekly service to mark the Sabbath.

“Friday afternoon we do what’s called Kiddish, and of course we get grape juice and challah bread or matzoh, and everybody shows up for that.”

But he complains the prison commissary offers few kosher foods for purchase, and meals prepared for the eight-day observance of Passover offered no variety. Not so, he says, for a Muslim holiday.

“Those inmates are accommodated very well with a large variety of foods for Ramadan, and Jewish inmates – we got shredded cheddar cheese and tuna for eight days.”

The Department of Corrections says Passover meals also included matzoh crackers, vegetables and fruit, adding that those trays are nutritionally sound as determined by a registered dietician. One other food-related issue for Virginia’s Jewish prisoners pertains to a different holiday– seven days in the fall celebrating the harvest and commemorating 40 years following Moses through the desert after Egypt freed its Jewish slaves.

“The Torah commands that through Sukkot we eat our meals in a temporary structure outside based on the temporary structures that would have been used during 40 years in the desert. Organizations will donate these things. DOC doesn’t have to foot the bill at all. They’re simple to put up and take down, and DOC says absolutely not, because they are enclosed on three sides. My cell is enclosed on four sides with a little bitty window, and an officer walks by once an hour to see if you’re doing anything you’re not supposed to do in your cell.”

So Estes has filed another lawsuit asking for rights accorded to Jewish inmates in federal prisons and in states with large Jewish populations. Also asking for outdoor access, inmates who call themselves pagans.

Worship Behind Bars Two.mp3

Mike Dieppa was raised in Lynchburg, attending Catholic mass and following the dictates of that faith.

“But even from a young age I had a slightly different opinion. My mom, who’s also a minister and a doctor of theology, impressed upon me the need to search spiritual things and out and make sure I answered my questions so for the last 14 years or so that’s what I’ve been doing.”

He was drawn to the stories of ancient Greece and Rome and to Norse mythology.

“I’ve always been attracted to Norwegian folk music and the Norse pantheon and folklore. My mother did not let us know that her mother was Norwegian, but then found out through Ancestry.com that we have a significant amount of Norwegian in our blood as well as Scottish and Irish and Southern Italian.”

He found pagan beliefs appealing because of their ties to nature, and he understood the need to use natural materials during religious ceremonies.

“We don’t want to present those things in a substance like plastic or Styrofoam that is harmful to the earth, so that is why we use natural substances like wood or stone or horn.”

He asked the Department of Corrections for a wooden bowl and chalice, a wand and a bell.

“The faith review committee in Richmond – we refer to it as the faith denial committee. In my own case with the wooden bowl they said it was a security risk – a potential weapon. I had to go into a 1983 court case to win the bowl, the wand, the cup and the bell.”

He praises officials at his prison – Green Rock, noting the administration has been supportive.

“There’s not a great amount of understanding of anything other than the holy Bible and a church, and so when people do things like chanting or walking in circles, having an altar and giving offerings to God, it looks a little odd, but + we’ve definitely received respect – especially here.”

But Dieppa hears other prisons are not so tolerant.

“A few guys came from Greensville, and they were trying to practice Wicka there, but it was near impossible. They could not get items. They could not get appointments to practice or a place to be. They could not get proper reading materials, and coming here they were quite surprised at some of the things that this chaplain has to offer.”

But there are certain things he can’t get through the prison commissary – like greeting cards for an important holiday on the pagan calendar – Halloween or what Dieppa and about 60 other pagans at the prison call Sauen. The department agreed to place a special order.

“It was up to four months by the time we sent the request, and Sauen had passed, and a pack of 6 cards was 47 dollars. They wanted to charge $25 in shipping, and I make 45 cents an hour at 30 hours – that’s pretty much the max you can make here, and so that was my whole month’s paycheck.”

And Richmond has refused a fundamental tenet of pagan practice – worshipping in a natural setting outside.

“The rec yard is our only experience of that, and it’s mostly mud.”

So Dieppa has joined about 7,500 other inmates who are suing the state of Virginia. He hopes the courts will support his First Amendment Rights to freedom of religion.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief