Lorton Reformatory, one of the nation's toughest prisons, has found the Lord.
From one end of the District of Columbia's prison complex to the other, prisoners can be found praying singing gospel songs, holding Bibles or Korans and greeting each other with "praise the Lord" or "As-salaam-alaikum."
Fully three-quarters of Lorton's 1,200 inmates, among whom are some of the most hardened criminals anywhere, profess to have embraced Christianity or one of the Muslim sects in the last three years, prison officials and chaplains estimate.
At the same time, escape from the prison, located in Fairfax County, have dropped to zero and assaults on fellow prisoners and guards have declined, prompting prison officials from across the nation and several foreign countries to visit Lorton to study the situation.
Whether the prisoners' discovery of religion is responsible for the drop in escapes (none since 1977) and assaults (42 in 1978) is a matter of some debate. But all agree, from senior prison officials down to the prisoners themselves, that Lorton has to a large degree been transformed.
"There is no question that we are better able to control the institution now that so many inmates are involved in religious activities," said Delbert Jackson, director of the D. C. correctional system. "But we are still operating a prison, and as far as I'm concerned the trend toward religion could reverse at any time."
The explanations for the religious fervor range from the spiritual to the pragmatic, with a few officials and prisoners saying they doubt whether many of those who profess conversion have truly been spiritually moved.
"What the people on the outside see is a lot of Lorton inmates who seem to be interested in religion," said Eddie Lester Smith, 49, who has served 16 years of a life-plus-53-years sentence at Lorton for armed robbery and murder. "Inside, we know that a lot of inmates get involved with a religious group to keep from being sexually harrased or to possibly plan a way to get out of prison."
Jackson said that some inmates who come to Lorton are afraid that they will be the victims of assaults. For self-protection, he said, many join religious groups because they offer a kind of mutual protection brotherhood. $ the philosophy of mutual protection is strongest among Muslim inmates who maintain that an assault on one member is an assault on all.
Leonard Myers, 46, who served 30 months in Lorton before being recently released, said he joined a prison Christian prayer group as part of a plan to escape.
"But after I was involved in the group for a while, I discovered that my life was changing," said Myers, who was serving time on a drug conviction. "Then I reached the point where I no longer wanted to get out of Lorton.
"After I accepted Christ, Lorton became like a monastery to me," he said. "I did nothing for two years but study Holy Scripture and the geography and history of the Holy Land."
Whatever the reasons for professing faith, the impact of the religious movement at Lorton has been substantial. The demand for religious books and periodicals in the prison library for instance, has grown so dramatically that the library is setting up a special section to house them.
Each week Lorton's estimated 300 Muslims and 500 Christians participate in some 85 religion-related activities, ranging from prayer meetings and Bible classes to classes in "spiritual awareness"" and lectures on "divine healing."
A full schedule of services are conducted by three Muslim sects, including Sunni, World Community of Islam in the West (formerly the Black Muslims), and the Moorish Science Muslims. There are 13 Christian groups representing denominations from Jehovah's Witnesses to Southern Baptists and Pentecostals.
One of the most popular activities among Lorton's Christian inmates is singrng with the institution's several gospel groups. On various days of the weeks, the "Gospel Giants," "Spiritual Kings" and Songs of Joy" can be found rehearsing for performances before their fellow inmates.
Last week was one of the busiest of the year for both Christians and Muslims at Lorton. Muslims began the months of Ramdan, a period during which Islamic inmates eat breakfast before daybreak, then fast until after sunset. Christians ended the week with a gala fourth anniversary celebration of the Lorton Prayer Service Prison Ministry. Prisoners and their friends and families spent six hours listening to songs and sermons.
"When I took over Lorton in 1972," said Jackson, "my most pressing concern was with how to keep inmates from breaking out of the institution." Now, he said, he finds himself concerned over the fact that few if any prisoners try to escape.
Jackson says he is concerned because the absence of escapes seems to him to not so much symptomatic of the religious revival as of a troubling tendency on the part of many prisoners to disengage mentally and emotionally from prison activity and life in general. Many seem not to care whether they stay or leave Lorton, he said.
"I see men 23, 24-years-old who seem to have lost all hope for doing anything," Jackson said. "There are men with 18 to 54 years in prison and longer express a will to live. This is not normal behavior."
Prison guards such as Joseph Sakalaukas, a corrections officer at Lorton for 18 years, harbor their own doubts about just what is happening in the prison today.
But he said that he could not deny that some prisoners have changed following an exposure to religion. One such inmate, he said, used to be so violent that he had to be kept sedated or he would attack guards ot injure himself. Today the former prisoner, who professes to be a born-again Christain, is out on parole and actively counsels Lorton inmates.
Daniel Strickland, the District's superintendent of correctional services, said the resurgence of interest in religion began in 1974 after he agreed to allow protesting inmates to establish programs they felt would make treatment of inmates more humane.
Strickland said inmates organized the Office of Resident Concern, which has sponsered a variety of religious activities at the prison, and a short time later started a Christian fellowship program to improve dialogue with prison guards and among inmates. $ in 1975, Sister Grace L. Paige, an inner-city evangelist, volunteered to organize the Lorton Prayer Service Prison Ministry, a prayer and Bible study group. That program now reaches other D. C. penal institutions, such as Cedar Knoll, Maple Glen, and the D. C. jail, through converted former inmates who, after leaving Lorton, become volunteers.
In the 1960s, during the rapid growth of the Black Muslim faith, Muslims were regarded as a revolutionary group. At Lorton and many other prisons, gatherings of Muslims for worship or any other purpose were forbidden and considered dangerous.
"Now there have been court rulings that guarantee prisoners the right to practice their faith behind bars," said Artqur Graves, assistant administrator at Lorton's central facility. "The Muslim faith has grown rapidly" -- there were only 20 in Lorton in 1972 -- "and we have found Muslim groups to be well disciplined. They are willing to talk and come to a compromise if we do have problems within the institution."
Curiously, the religious movement has resulted recently in an increase in recidivism on the part of those who were converted to Christianity or Islam in prison, religious leaders say. $ mikal M. Ba'th, chaplain for Islamic inmates, said that, for instance, an increasing number of Muslims are returning to prison after their paroles because they have been rejected and abandoned by people in the community.
"In the case of both the Christians and the Muslims, there is a lot of talk about supporting inmates when they get out of Lorton. But there is very little substance to back up the talk," Ba'th said.
"A few years ago, so few Muslims were returning to Lorton after parole that people wanted to do studies to see why it was happening," said Ba'th. "Now Lorton Muslims have one of the highest recidivism rates in the country. We attribute that to the fact that many inmates are rejected by their mosque and their families." Once they leave the prison.
Leroy Walters, 32, the violent inmate Sakalaukas said had to be sadated, said that he left prison with a collection of Bibles and the belief that his new faith would win him acceptance in religious and social circles in the Washington community.
But Walters, who was released 10 months ago after serving time for armed robbery and petty larcency, said one of his first encounters with a church was heartbreaking. "I went to church so that I could give my testimony and tell people what the Lord did for me," said Walters, known among his inmate friends as Brother Frog. "When I stood up and said I was from Lorton and that I wanted to testify, the minister told me he would not allow it."
Walters said he cried after the incident. "But I realize that some people still get nervous when an ex-offender comes around, even if he does say he's got the Holy Ghost," Walters said.
Lorton's trend toward increased involvement of inmates in religious activities has led -- at least in one case -- to an effort to duplicate that spiritual awakening at another prison.
Two years ago, several volunteers representing the Ottawa Detention Center in Ontario, Canada, spent four days at Lorton observing religious programs.
Six months ago, inmates at Ottawa were allowed to organize a prison fellowship program -- like the one at Lorton -- where inmates, prison guards and administrators engage in Christian dialogue.
James Duncan, superintendent of the 200-inmate facility, said he already sees some signs of success. "Our program has been quite beneficial," Duncan said. "The men are extremely well-behaved now. They seem to have a much brighter outlook on life." tr add sixteen
"I have been surprised more than once to see men who I knew were hardened offenders step forward and embrace a religion," Jackson said. "I can't explain just why it is happening but there is no question in my mind that it's real." CAPTION: Picture, Members of Prayer Service Prison Ministry join hands and sing in the basement of Lorton chapel. By Ken Feil -- The Washington Post