Letters from Death Row: Faith Behind Bars

An informal Observer survey finds complex religious beliefs among death row inmates.

While there have been studies on the various religions’ moral stances on capital punishment and surveys on the religious affiliation of inmates in regular prison settings, there has been little, if any, research on the religious beliefs of death row inmates.
AP Photo/The Amarillo Globe News, Stephen Spillman
While there have been studies on the various religions’ moral stances on capital punishment and surveys on the religious affiliation of inmates in regular prison settings, there has been little, if any, research on the religious beliefs of death row inmates.

This is the third story in a series. Read the previous two pieces, Books Behind Bars and Alone on the Inside


Thomas Whitaker grew up in his parents’ devout Christian faith, but after eight years on death row, he’s rejected the religion he followed for 27 years. In fact, he’s rejected any belief in a divine power at all.

Whitaker was sentenced to death in 2007 for organizing the murder of his family in order to collect an inheritance of $1.5 million, prosecutors said. Fueled by what they described as an “irrational hate,” he paid his roommate, 21-year-old Chris Brashear, to carry out the shooting of his brother, mother and father. Whitaker’s dad was the only one who survived.

In response to an informal survey conducted by The Texas Observer, Whitaker wrote that after nine years of total confinement he was “basically an agnostic.” Today, he said, he practiced a form of secular Buddhism, discarding the “metaphysical nonsense of that religion just as I do for my former faith, Christianity.”

Thomas Whitaker
Thomas Whitaker

In his experience, dogmatic religious beliefs tend to get sacrificed on death row—largely due to a lack of what he termed “shepherds,” such as priests or imams.

“There’s a difficulty in believing there exists a deity of benevolence when one’s entire world is composed of pain and deception,” he wrote. “Most of the men seem to become religious only as their execution draws near, which seems hypocritical to me. But then, religion is an excellent consoler, regardless of whether it is complete bullshit.”

There is perhaps an assumption that the majority of inmates find God in prison; that religion, Christianity in particular, offers a ready path to solace and redemption, or even serves to mitigate heinous crimes. But the Observer has found that religion on death row is far more complex. While most condemned inmates enter their cell as Christians, some, like Whitaker, actually lose that faith altogether. Others adopt Judaism—a religion that tends not to proselytize. And some fall into fringe faiths like the Urantia religion, a UFO cult that uses as its founding text a book that adherents believe to have been edited by superhuman beings.

Last year, I sent a questionnaire to each of the 292 inmates housed on death row at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston in East Texas. The questions were designed to shed light on the effects of solitary confinement; their childhoods; and whether they had found religion in prison. I wanted to see if any patterns emerged. The results have formed a series of stories published on the Observer website, of which this is the third installment.

letters from death row
Jen Reel
Letters From Death Row

Forty-one inmates responded, about 14 percent of the total number of men on death row. Of those, 26—a little more than 63 percent—said they believed in God before they were sent to death row. Fifteen said they weren’t believers when they arrived at the Polunsky Unit. Three men—7 percent of those polled, including Whitaker—said they had lost their faith while awaiting execution. Another three said they had converted to Christianity. Two claimed to have discovered Judaism. None said they were Muslim.

Charles Mamou only became a Christian once he arrived on death row. Sentenced to death for killing two people during what prosecutors said was a botched drug sale, Mamou wrote that before he arrived at Polunsky, he was consumed by a “lustful zeal to party [and] get drunk off alcohol and sex.” Although turning to God offered him some kind of solace, that isn’t the case with many of his fellow inmates.

“The biggest misconception is that men and women find religion once they come to death row,” Mamou wrote. “If anything, from my observation, people lose what little faith they had—or thought they had—once they arrive here, because your humanity is taken away.”

Tony Medina was one of those who never found faith. Convicted of the drive-by shooting of two people in Houston in 1996, Medina wrote that he hasn’t found religion in the 19 years he’s been an inmate at Polunsky.

“After coming to death row I saw so many people falling into religion,” he wrote. “I did a lot of searching in myself, read a lot of history books and just meditated on life and where I had ended up. [But] I never found myself needing to lean on religion. More than anything I found that I needed to know who I was inside. Every man has to deal with these walls and fight these demons that come at night in their own way.”

Tony Medina
courtesy TDCJ
Tony Medina

For many, though, religion offers precisely what Medina said it failed to do for him: a way to fight the demons that come at night.

Willie Trottie, executed in September for killing his ex-girlfriend and her brother more than 20 years ago, wrote that he regretted not committing himself to God more in the free world.

“I didn’t practice it enough, or full-heartedly embrace it (which I believe was … another factor in my road to death row),” he wrote. “Everything else was first and God was second.”

Responding to the Observer’s questionnaire a few months before his execution, Trottie said that he was still a Christian. “For most, that is what sustains you in a prison environment.”

Aníbal Canales, sentenced to die for killing another inmate in prison in 1997, said his faith had deepened. “Trust me, if you don’t have that foundation… you can find yourself in a mental torment real quick. This place breeds mental illness. So you have to work hard to stay above that, and God can do that for you.”

While there have been studies on the various religions’ moral stances on capital punishment and surveys on the religious affiliation of inmates in regular prison settings, there has been little, if any, research on the religious beliefs of death row inmates.

A couple of years ago, Malcolm Rigsby, associate professor of sociology and director of criminal justice at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, published a paper on religious conversion in prison. It found that many inmates turned to religion for a worldview that fostered “belonging, identity and management of life.”

Rigsby, who also once worked as a prison guard in Texas to help pay his way through graduate school at Sam Houston State University, said three-quarters of the men he surveyed for his paper were serving life without parole. Their views, he said, could be a rough proxy for death row inmates.

“Death row,” Rigsby told the Observer, “can be a place of solitude and soul-seeking.” And that environment of soul-seeking can often push people to one of two extremes: Inmates become even more profoundly religious, armed with feelings of invincibility as they face their fate; or they cast off religion altogether, seeing it as futile or even hypocritical.

Rigsby said that among his participants, religion met specific needs: the need to manage the institutional setting in which they found themselves, and the need to change themselves. For death row inmates too, religion could help make life as bearable as possible given the circumstances, he said. But for those who had given up on religion altogether there was, it seemed on the surface at least, a sense of hopelessness or resignation.

Rigsby said it was unusual to hear of inmates who had converted to Judaism (as had two death row inmates in the Observer’s survey). “It’s a religion that does not try to proselytize,” he said. But Judaism may be appealing because, like Christianity, it is “something that can be practiced on your own,” he said, whereas Islam is a religion practiced in community, something sorely lacking on death row.

The key difference between prisoners on death row and other inmates is that in a regular prison setting, inmates often have what Rigsby terms a “helper”—someone who facilitates a religious conversion, perhaps a pastor or a cellmate. It’s the same thing Whitaker noted: a lack of what he called “shepherds.”

For Rigsby’s interviewees these helpers were instrumental in that conversion. On death row, it’s a different story. “I believe ‘helpers’ are key to your question about why some of those on death row lose faith,” Rigsby said. “On death row there is a limited pool of potential helpers.”

Will Trottie
courtesy TDCJ
Willie Trottie

But for most, clinging to a religion helps them face what in Texas, more than any other state, has become all-but-certain.

Karla Faye Tucker, who in 1998 became the first woman executed in Texas since the Civil War, embraced Christianity while on death row. But becoming a born-again Christian failed to persuade then-Gov. George W. Bush to issue a reprieve.

Talking to CNN’s Larry King a month before her death, Tucker said she was excited to see how God was “unfolding everything … It’s a blessing to be a part of it, and it’s exciting to know that God has a plan for this.”

Willie Trottie, who in response to the Observer’s questionnaire wrote that his Bible kept him “spiritually uplifted and encouraged, despite the grim circumstances we’re facing,” was executed on Sept. 10. Just before the lethal drugs took effect, he told his family, watching from behind glass in the execution chamber, “I am going home to be with the Lord. Find it in your hearts to forgive me. I’m sorry, stay strong. Jesus, take me home.”

Alex Hannaford writes about the death penalty, crime, prisons, religion and human interest issues for the Telegraph, Times and Guardian in the UK, and to GQ, The Nation and The Texas Observer.

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Published at 9:00 am CST