Believers Behind Bars

Prisoners also have a right to manifest their religion under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights. But, their ability to practice and manifest their religions is certainly different from those who are free. 

Related imageOne of the cases where the European Court on Human Rights considered the boundaries of this right is X v Federal Republic of Germany (1967). In this case a British prisoner from a German jail complained about lack of services of the Church of England.

However, the Commission decided that to comply with Article 9, provision of a German Protestant pastor is enough. So, prisoners who have different religion than majority can find themselves in a difficult situation as they may not be allowed to attend religious services of its own church. However, one would say that if it is possible to find a clergyman from a particular faith then prisoners should be allowed to talk to him and participate in religious services according to his/her faith. 

Another method to practice ones religion is by reading the Bible, Koran or other books relating to a particular religion. However, it was decided by the Commission in X v Austria (1965) that there is no obligation under Article 9 to provide books for prisoners to exercise their religion. However, the court could make a different decision if it considered the case under Article 10 which allows freedom of expression including t a right to receive information.

Similarly, in X v UK (1975) (App 5442/72) the court could consider Article 10 instead of Article 9 which would lead to a different outcome. In this case a Buddhist prisoner was not allowed to send articles to a Buddhist magazine and so he argued violation of Article 9 as exchange of ideas is a part of exercising of his religion. However, the applicant did not prove that communication with other Buddhists was necessary for him to practice his religion.

But, the prison authorities tried but were unable to find a Buddhist minister. So, they allowed him to write one extra letter a week to communicate with another Buddhist. This shows that practices not necessary for a particular religion can be forbidden in prisons. However, prison authorities can try to arrange meeting of prisoners with clerics if it is practical.

Another case relating to books is X v UK (1976) (App6886/75) where a prisoner was not allowed to keep ‘A Choreography of Body and Mind’ because of illustrations on the martial arts and self-defence which it contained. The Commission decided that interference with freedom of religion took place in this case but it was justified under Article 9(2) as the book could be dangerous. 

But, some cases are very unusual such as X v UK (1982) (App 8121/78) where an Indian Sikh wore only a towel for 23 months as he refused to wear prison clothes. He also refused to clean his cell. The Commission decided in this case that Article 9 does not give a right to prisoners to wear their own clothes, especially as he did not show that his religion required him to wear different clothing than prison clothes. The Commission also accepted that his religion required high-class Sikhs not to clean floors but under Article 9 (2) the interference with the right to religion was justified as it is necessary in a democratic society.

So, prisoners also have a right to manifest their religions but it should be in some boundaries as to what is reasonable and practical.

Image Source :