Why The Sheriff of the Kern County Jail Cared More for Our Mortal Souls Than the Constitution

Banjo music and the earnest warblings of a well-meaning silver-haired Pentecostal woman awakened us early every Sunday morning on “B Deck,” the felony floor, of the Kern County Jail. There we were, alleged felons in our underwear, abruptly shaken into consciousness to the sound of what could have been cow bells and cattle calls until the realization struck that we were indeed listening to a spirited sermon from a strange woman accompanied by banjo music through a little amplifier. Our minister was literally holding onto the bars of the cell as she and her husband assaulted us with gospel as we sat immobilized in jail.

Don’t get me wrong, I am an ardent believer in the right to worship the religion of one’s choice, but when you are literally a captive audience and forced to hear a sermon from which there is no escape, it is in my opinion a blatant violation of the First and Eight Amendments to our sacred constitution.

The Establishment Clause of First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. . . or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This is the law upon which our United States Supreme Court relied in ordering the removal of a 5,300-pound granite replica of the Ten Commandments that a local judge had erected at an Alabama courthouse. According to one CNN poll I read, only one in five Americans agreed with the removal of the Ten Commandments from the Alabama court house, so I guess I’m in the minority on this one.

Kern County has always had a very heavy Baptist and Pentecostal religious influence, so I am sure that around 1978 the Sheriff figured some of that old time religion might have helped us to see the error of our ways and be good for our rehabilitation. I guess a majority of Americans would agree. Since we couldn’t get out to church, he probably figured they could bring the church to us. Of course, due to the fact that we were incarcerated and not even offered the choice to decline to hear the sermon, the Sheriff was actually forcing us to hear religious education and loud banjo music that we didn’t ask to hear. The worst part was the banjo was out of tune, the singing was off-key, and we were still in our underwear when the sermon began. Which brings me to a brief discussion about the Eighth Amendment to our Constitution.

The Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees citizens the right, among other things, to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. Now I know a few fundamentalist Christians who would never agree that a Pentecostal religious sermon to a bunch of low-lifes like myself would be either cruel or unusual. I respectfully suggest that being rudely awakened and then assaulted by the sound of an off-key hymnal accompanied by an out-of-tune banjo is more than enough punishment for a suspected pot dealer, but I’m probably in the minority on this one as well.

Now, I don’t think that any lawyer would seriously argue that bad banjo playing rises to the level of a violation of the Eighth Amendment. Such violations usually occur in cases where the jail is so overcrowded that people die from lack of medical care (as has happened here in California), or the guards deliberately beat you or deprive you of food. But it sure was painful to my ears back in 1978 to hear that banjo. Maybe there oughta be a law that banjos can’t be amplified. Cause that’s just wrong.


  1. Hi Tom,
    How long were you there and did this happen every Sunday?
    Say hi to your wonderful wife ,
    she is the greatest!

  2. Shoot...Tim.
    My bad.
    Sorry about that.