After considerable public outcry, the Alaska Department of Corrections has rescinded a policy that had effectively banned the celebration of Catholic mass in state prisons for the past month.

“Alaska Department of Corrections acknowledges the recent concern surrounding the June 6, 2023, Interim Policy and Procedures Memorandum (816.01),” a July 14 statement from the department noted. “We respect the unintended issue generated by this memo and for that reason have repealed the memo in question. Our topmost priority is to ensure a secure and safe environment, but at the same time, to honor the religious beliefs of all those in our care and custody. Alaska DOC remains committed to serving the State of Alaska with the highest level of respect and integrity.”

Controversy erupted after Alaska’s Corrections Commissioner Jennifer Winkelman signed off on an interim policy that banned the use of sacramental altar wine in all 14 state prison facilities.

The June 6, policy specifically barred the use of any alcoholic wine for religious services.

Since all Catholic masses require at least a few ounces of wine to be used by the priest, the now withdrawn policy had effectively banned clergy from offering mass to inmates for over a month.

The Alaska Watchman reached out to the Department of Corrections for an explanation about why the policy was initially implemented, and whether there were any specific problems that prompted the department to enact the policy in the first place. These questions were left unanswered in the department’s explanation that the policy is no longer in effect.

The memo rescinding the policy was signed off on July 14 by Commissioner Winkelman. It did not give a reason, other than stating that stating that the former rule allowing altar wine was still “in effect until a full policy review is conducted.”

News of the now defunct policy quickly made national news, especially among religious liberty and Catholic news websites.

Altar wine has been used for years by priests offering mass to Alaska’s inmates. This is not the first time, however, that Catholic chaplains have been hampered from celebrating mass in the state’s prison system. More than a decade ago, Father Thomas Brundage was prohibited from bringing in a small vial of wine to offer mass at the Palmer Correctional Center. Like the most recent move, that policy was also quickly reversed, with an apology.

In a 2010 article Brundage specifically recounted the incident.

“After being berated for 10 minutes by the second in command of the prison, I was able to later on show them that even on their Web page (it) lists the procedure for bringing in wine for those churches that use wine, and the founders of the constitution would be turning over in their graves knowing that a denomination would have to change the way they worshiped that day, because of state officials,” Brundage recalled at  the time.

According to Catholic teaching, all Catholics are bound to attend Sunday mass, if possible. This celebration requires the priest to use a few ounces of wine, which Catholics believe is transformed into the sacramental blood of Christ.

During a typical prison mass, the priest consumes the wine, while inmates are given the consecrated hosts, derived from bread.

Nevertheless, a valid Catholic mass requires the priest to at least consecrate and consume both species himself during the liturgy.

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Dept. of Corrections withdraws ban on Catholic masses in Alaska prisons

Joel Davidson
Joel is Editor-in-Chief of the Alaska Watchman. Joel is an award winning journalist and has been reporting for over 24 years, He is a proud father of 8 children, and lives in Palmer, Alaska.


  • Tamra Nygaard says:

    Slight correction, hosts are not derived from bread. They are simple bread, baked whole, from wheat flour and water. Unleavened, according to Mosaic Law.

  • Toscano says:

    And what about the Orthodox priests? Surely they celebrate Divine Liturgy in the prisons? Some Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists and Jews, too … although I do not know what their rules are regarding the necessity of wine use v. obedience to the secular authorities.

  • Tara Martha Barno says:

    Are other Religions Banned, such as Jewish, Baptist, Methodist, etc?