The Spirit Within

Doing time and finding God in the Montana State Prison



The topic of the day is the Book of Revelation. Herbert Pins, Catholic chaplain at the Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge, looks around the table at the inmates in his religious discussion class. The Revelation of St. John, he tells them, was written in jail.

“He is writing as a prisoner, and in order to get his message out he needs to sneak it out under the noses of the Roman guards,” Pins says.

St. John crafted the Book of Revelation as a drama, he tells them, to be acted out and read symbolically. One can read Revelation as an optimist or a pessimist. Read it as an optimist, he says, and the message is comforting: “Be strong, have courage in your faith, and God will see you through.”

One of the inmates smiles.

“It makes a lot more sense now,” the prisoner says. “That’s one part in here I’ve never thought of. He’s basically predicting the fall of the Roman Empire.”

The prisoner, who is serving a life sentence, has been coming to the class nearly every week for years.

“I’ve got a birthday coming up, three years,” he tells Pins before the class.

“That’s right,” Pins replies. “Your baptism.”

The man is one of eight prisoners whom Pins has taken through a full course of baptism to become Catholic. It is one of his proudest accomplishments at Deer Lodge because all of those men came to him.

“I’m not here to proselytize,” Pins says.

In his four years at the Montana State Prison, Herbert Pins has gained a reputation as a religious unifier. A motorcycle-riding, cowboy-boot-wearing, magic-trick-performing Zen practitioner, Pins spent most of his life ministering in hospitals. When he made the switch to prison work, he felt like he was going back to his roots. He often speaks of how he is the product of the ’60s, a time that produced a whole generation of socially-conscious priests.

“I feel like I’m doing the work of justice here,” he says. “Like I’m dealing with the guts of Christianity.”

Pins is not only a resource for Catholic prisoners, but a spiritual leader for inmates who practice any of the 20-plus religions found within the walls of the Montana State Prison. There are two Protestant chaplains who handle the needs of the prison’s majority of Protestant inmates, but Pins is the contact for the jail’s Native Americans, Wiccans, Buddhists, Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and many others. He even procured a hammer and medallion for an inmate who practices the Norse religion, Asatru.

“He’s not just for the Catholics,” says one inmate. “I’ve got a Satanist friend. Father Pins helped him out and got him his religious materials.”

Pins again points to his background and his generation’s progressivism as his inspiration for assisting inmates on their spiritual journeys, regardless of their religion.

“Any faith here needs to be supported, even if I’m totally opposed to it,” he says.

With interfaith unity, he tries to help the inmates channel the often contentious religious conflicts that arise within the cellblocks into something constructive.

Not everyone on the inside shares that approach.

The class discussion soon turns to how the inmates deal with their fundamentalist peers. The blocks are full of heated religious debate, the inmates say, and plenty of them are strict biblical literalists.

Pins has brought along an article by a professor at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, where Pins studied in the 1960s. The proof that one cannot interpret any single part of the Bible absolutely, the article says, is in the book’s many contradictions. For example, he says, one should “ponder the fact that Paul teaches that a person is justified by faith in Christ alone [Romans 3:11-5:11], while James writes that ‘faith without works is dead’ [2:26].”

This can be useful ammunition in your cellblock debates, Pins tells them. Quoting from these passages can be “a wonderful thing to do if you’re confronted, that would put a literalist right up a fence.”

The inmates laugh.

“We can laugh at that, but they won’t laugh at that,” Pins says. “I have people coming into my office, telling me that I’m going to hell because of how I interpret Christianity.”

“The reason I was laughing was because I was thinking of that old joke,” says the prisoner with the baptism anniversary approaching. The joke is about the sort of “instant Christian” who becomes a cellblock fundamentalist. It involves a criminal who has never been religious being caught by the police. All of a sudden Jesus Christ is sitting next to him in the squad car.

Finding a delicate balance

Pins comes to work in Deer Lodge three days a week. He lives in Warm Springs, where he works two days as a chaplain at the Montana State Hospital. The mental institution was built by prison labor from Deer Lodge in 1919. That was back in the days of the old prison, a medieval-looking structure in the middle of town that is now one of Interstate 90’s most venerable tourist attractions. The new prison, built in 1974, sits a few miles outside of town and houses 1,300 inmates.

On a typical Saturday, Pins comes in early to go through and respond to kites. (When inmates have a request, whether it is for time with the chaplain or a religious book or object, they must file a form, or “fly a kite.”) He leads his discussion class in the early afternoon, and then conducts two Masses, one for the Low Side inmates and the other for the High Side. The “sides” are based on an inmate’s crime and his behavior in jail; low siders have more privileges. Pins spends the last few hours doing paperwork and visiting inmates in their cells. He leaves by six, so he can catch Garrison Keillor on the radio.

After four years, it has all become routine. “I certainly had my trepidations and certainly had my anxieties when I started,” Pins says. Time passed, though, and “what was abnormal became normal.”

Still, he must constantly grapple with the uncertainty of his role within the prison. How does a chaplain fit into the unique power dynamics of a prison? How can he be a religious figure trusted by the inmates and at the same time a loyal state employee?

“My identity is always in flux,” he says.

For example, if Pins is seen as being too strong an advocate for inmate concerns, it could put him into opposition with the Department of Corrections (DOC). Yet if he is seen as just another staff member by inmates, they will not trust him. Pins recently had a conversation with an inmate who said there was still concern among the prisoners about how a former chaplain had behaved during the 1991 prison riot. That the incident is still being discussed in the blocks shows “that the inmates monitor us, too,” Pins says.

One experience in particular helped Pins draw a line.

In his first month at the prison, an inmate approached him after Mass and asked for a favor. The inmate wanted Pins to make a phone call for him. Pins pushed the man on what the call was for, and the prisoner told him a female relative needed to know that he was all right. Pins took the information to the command post, and prison officials told him the woman was not who the prisoner said she was. What they told him came as a shock.

“He was going to have me call his victim and tell her that he was OK,” Pins says.

Now the priest only makes calls if there is a death in the family.

The progressive spirit

Pins came to Montana to return to his rural roots. He was born in Iowa, near Dubuque, in 1944, and decided in high school that he wanted to be a priest. He spent a total of nine years in seminaries, earning two Masters degrees.

The turbulence of the 1960s imbued many in the Catholic church with a progressive spirit. Liberation Theology took shape in Latin America among priests who fought against underdevelopment and oppression. In the United States, young priests saw Scripture as a starting point for concrete action to help the impoverished. The philosophical underpinnings for much of the renewed social consciousness came from the Second Vatican Council in 1965, which inspired freer interpretation of Catholic doctrine and increased communication with people of other faiths. It also helped draw Pins to the teachings of eastern religions.

“The greatest mentor in my life was Thomas Merton,” Pins says. “I’ve always felt a spiritual closeness to him. He was the one writing those far-out books on Buddhism in the ’60s and ’70s.”

Merton’s book, Mystics and Zen Masters, published in 1967, suggests that Western monastic orders and Oriental mystic traditions have much in common and much to gain through mutual study and understanding. The book was the starting point for Pins’ Masters thesis on Zen Buddhism.

After his training, Pins chose to go into hospital work. He spent 10 years in Pittsburgh and 15 years in Seattle, ministering at two hospitals in each city. The work was intense, often involving late nights, and Pins’ candor in speaking to the local press in Seattle about his job and its role in the hospital hierarchy caused some friction with his superiors.

In the summer of 1996, he moved to Montana. He has some family in Havre, and he had come out for Thanksgiving every year.

“I needed a change. I felt burned out by hospital work,” he says. Fly-fishing and deer hunting were his ulterior motives.

After a year at a cathedral in Helena, an opening came up at the State Prison, and the Bishop called on Pins to take his place. He came to Deer Lodge at the beginning of 1998.

Challenges to the faith

The lifer with the baptism birthday coming up points his finger at Pins across the table.

“I’m not tootin’ your horn,” he says. “But since you’ve been here there’s been more unity because you work with all the groups.”

The inmate says he has been meditating with the Buddhists. “It makes you have a better outlook on insects,” he says. “I used to just crush them.”

Pins tells the inmate it’s all right to crush insects, so long as last rites are administered. There is laughter, but then he gets serious.

“They have a discipline which we have lost in Christianity,” Pins says of the Buddhists. “I have practiced Zen now for 35 years. It’s something we all need.”

Rowan Conrad comes into the prison every month to lead a meditation session. Conrad, who is a member of the Open Way Sangha in Missoula, says that Pins “knows what’s important is that these men find some way to make their lives work, not just his way.” Pins’ openness to other faiths is rare, Conrad says.

“I have encountered prison administrators and prison chaplains who create every obstacle they can find because if you’re not a Christian you’re an agent of the Devil, and you’re misguiding these already misguided men,” Conrad says. “You can’t fault them for it because it’s their deeply held belief that they’re protecting these men.”

Others, however, says this ecumenical spirit has its drawbacks. Alexandra Witkin New-Holy, an assistant professor at the Center for Native American Studies at Montana State University, has been a vocal critic of religious discrimination against Native Americans in Montana’s prisons. With Native Americans making up 17.6 percent of the prison population at Deer Lodge, she says that their access to religious worship is less than proportional. New-Holy, who issued a report last years on Native American religious rights in the prison, says that, for example, American Indian prisoners don’t have enough access to the worship room because of all the other religious groups using it.

“It’s great that Father Pins is integrating other religions into the prison, but it shouldn’t be a zero sum gain. It shouldn’t be at the expense of the Native American prisoners,” she says.

New-Holy’s report, based on inmate correspondence, accounts instances of sacred items being searched or confiscated, maximum security inmates being denied access to worship, and rituals being complicated by restrictions on tobacco and medicinal herbs.

Although the report does not mention specific chaplains, and New-Holy has never met Pins, the report objects to Christian or Catholic chaplains supervising Native American religious activities at all.

“These denominations, with a few notable exceptions, have conspired with colonial and federal governments for hundreds of years to eliminate Native religious practices,” the report reads.

“Reading the report felt like “a slap in the face,” Pins says. “I felt affronted because she never came to talk to me, and I think I was doing a decent, good job responding to whatever needs there were.”

New-Holy acknowledges in the report that she did not contact any prison staff or officials. “I knew the kinds of responses I was going to get,” she says.

DOC spokeswoman Linda Moodry says the prison is making progress toward facilitating Native American religions, although it is going slower than some prisoners would like.

Pins regularly participates in the sweat lodge and talking circle ceremonies, and he distributes the tobacco and medicinal herbs. One of the complaints of some maximum security American Indian prisoners relayed by New-Holy is that sacred objects have been delivered less frequently lately to the highest security areas.

According to Moodry, Pins “does go up there and he tries to accommodate as much as security will allow in those areas.” New-Holy, who accuses the DOC of having a “smokescreen strategy” of trying to deny its own inadequacies, says she does not necessarily blame Pins, and that he has been supportive in the past, though she “would not be surprised to find out he’s relatively powerless.”

However, echoing her report, New-Holy does not think he is the person best suited to handle Native religious needs.

“What is really needed is a full-time staff person, preferably Native American, who can mediate between the institution and the inmates and the tribal entities,” New-Holy says.

The DOC would be open to such a position, says Moodry, although there is currently not enough funding for it.

Most of the incidents in New-Holy’s report involve maximum security prisoners. The Low- and High-Side inmates, who have regular access to the sweat lodge and other ceremonies, are more content but are still not satisfied. Several declined to judge the situation one way or the other until a meeting among inmates, state representatives, and DOC officials is rescheduled. The meeting, meant to address various concerns of Native American inmates, not just religious ones, was cancelled because of security concerns regarding the number of inmates who insisted on attending.

While Pins is dismayed by some of the specific incidents cited by New-Holy, and security measures do sometimes keep him from facilitating worship, he believes real progress is being made. There are legitimate spiritual concerns, he says, but in some cases, individual issues have to be understood in the larger context of prison power dynamics. Some complaints are ultimately about “bulldogging,” the prison practice of getting the upper hand and forcing someone to concede something. When dealing with authority figures, bulldogging sometimes takes the form of pushing legitimate concerns like religious rights. It is another hard line to draw.

Hard time realities

As the day winds down, Pins wraps up his first Mass, and prepares for the second. There is a college football game on television, which always brings down attendance. Low side Mass draws 18 people. One of them, a young man who also went to the discussion group earlier in the day, is getting released soon. His family was religious but he never was. Now he attends the class and services regularly.

“It took being locked up,” he says. When he is free he wants to be an engineer.

The DOC considers religion a vital part of rehabilitation, part of “a cycle of treatment,” says Moodry. Studies have indicated that recidivism rates are much lower among inmates who engage in regular spiritual practice.

“Now, does that say something about spiritual practice or people who are serious enough about their lives to include spiritual practice? I don’t know,” says Conrad.

Pins believes in religion as a “healing art,” but he is not naïve about recidivism.

“I’m a realist,” he says. “I think the majority [of inmates] have been horribly malformed before they got here, so the odds are already against them.”

Asked to relay a positive story from the inside, Pins creases his brow and stares up at the ceiling for a while. A long while. What he offers is not positive in the traditional sense.

Pins was very affected by a man who served a long time because of a drunken driving accident which killed several teenagers. He was consumed with grief over what he had done.

“He was leaving here profoundly changed,” Pins says. “The incredible brokenness of that human being was a very positive story.” Pins also speaks of a prisoner on death row whom he visits regularly.

“When I talk to him I’m fully aware of the evil that’s been part of his past, and while I can’t exonerate him for what he’s done, I can see how he’s very typical” in terms of his extremely abusive childhood and tormented past.

“I see in this man a lot of growing since he’s been condemned to be executed,” Pins says.

The man’s time may come up in two years. As a Catholic priest, Pins is a natural opponent of the death penalty, and he has written fiery articles and speeches on the topic. However, talking about the possibility that he will witness the execution and administer last rites to this inmate whom he calls a friend, Pins is not angry but somber. “I may be in the most uncomfortable spot I have ever been in,” he says.

The end of Mass approaches, and the inmates offer their special prayers. Today they pray for a sick mother, a sick niece, a daughter who is turning 18, for all the soldiers fighting for the United States in Afghanistan, and for each other.

The men are all standing, their choir stalls angled in so that everyone is very close together. It is afternoon, and a misty light comes through the worship room windows. There are no bars and no guards. There are no striped suits, only dark blue shirts and jeans. If they weren’t all wearing the same clothing, this could be any service, anywhere.

They finish by singing a hymn, with Pins leading them in his husky and melodic voice.
“In beauty of the lilies,
Christ born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom
That transfigures you and me;
As he died to make men holy,
Let us live to make men free,
While God is marching on.”

When the song is done the prayer books are stacked in cardboard boxes and the choir stalls pushed to the corners of the room. The inmates weave through the room, shaking hands and wishing one another peace, before returning to their cellblocks.

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