Prisons seek chaplains after state budget cuts

August 8, 2011

In the weeks since North Carolina's legislature laid off most of its
prison chaplains, Betty Brown, director of prison chaplaincy services,
has been crisscrossing the state searching for volunteers who can attend
to the religious needs of Native American, Wiccan and Rastafarian
prisoners.

State legislators had assumed that volunteer ministries
would jump in and help prisoners meet the ritual and devotional needs
of their faiths. But so far that
hasn't happened.

"It's been
tough locating volunteers for those faith groups," said Brown, whose
department lost 26 full-time prison chaplains as part of an effort to
close a $2.6 billion state budget gap.

Across the nation,
religious life behind bars is changing as correctional departments face
budget cuts along with other state agencies. Some states, like North
Carolina, have seen outright cuts. In other states, hiring freezes mean
vacancies instead of replacements for chaplains who die or retire.

Gary
Friedman, spokesman for the American Correctional Chaplains
Asso­cia­tion, said his organization distributes brochures to explain to
legislators who are mulling over cuts the benefits of retaining
correctional chaplains.

"Chaplains are getting caught up in all
these budget reductions and staff reductions," he said. "It's going on
all over the country." Some states, such as Texas, were able to spare
chaplains in the budget nego­tiations. But in other states, prison
chaplains are seeing increasing workloads in tough economic times, even
as the religious diversity of inmates continues to grow.

In California, where about 130 prison chaplains are currently employed, there are three dozen vacancies.

At
the California Men's Colony, a medium- and minimum-security prison in
San Luis Obispo, Rabbi Lon Mosko­witz, the Jewish chaplain, is helping
fulfill the duties of a Muslim chaplain who died a few months ago.

During
Passover and summer solstice observances, he said, some Jewish and
Native American inmates were unable to attend communal events due to
lockdowns in their yards prompted by budget-related shortages in guard
staff.

"They had to observe their religious service within their
assigned housing unit," said Lt. Dean Spears, a spokesman for the
facility.

Indiana's prisons—which have nine vacancies among 37
chaplain positions—have had similar restrictions when overseen by
skeleton crews at times when inmates might have attended chapel, said 
Stephen Hall, director of religious services for the Indiana Department
of Correction.

When there's a drastic cut in chaplains, as in
North Carolina, questions arise about everyday religious concerns as
well as special or weekly observances.

"Lay people tend to think
chaplains perform services on holy days," said D. Craig Horn, a North
Carolina legislator who opposed his state's chaplaincy cuts. "My view is
a professional chaplain adds stability and has a tremendous impact on
promoting calm and providing prisoners with counseling and direction."

Having
worked as a church volunteer  helping prisoners prepare for the world
outside, Horn also knows that volunteers aren't trained to do the kind
of multifaith work that chaplains provide daily—whether it's kosher
meals for Jews, prayer rugs for Muslims or sage and sweet grass for
American Indians to burn as they offer praise to the Four Winds.

Pat
Nolan, vice president of Prison Fellowship, said chaplains are the ones
most likely to help inmates after riots, rapes and other traumatic
incidents or to facilitate special requests—like a phone call from a
relative near death.

"For the safety of the institution, it's
important that persons going through those horrible situations have
someone to help them to defuse the situation," he said. "Otherwise,
tension can get really high or out of control."

The well-being and
safety of prisoners aren't the only reasons to keep chaplains. There
are legal issues too, state prison officials say.

The Religious
Land Use and Institu­tion­alized Persons Act of 2000 puts government
agencies on alert that they can't get in the way of the free religious
practice of prisoners.

With no professional chaplains left in
North Carolina's medium- and minimum-security prisons, that legal
requirement has become the biggest headache for Brown, the prison
chaplaincy director.

Some worry that the civil rights of prisoners
may be violated by volunteer Christian ministries that, however
sincere, may also be motivated to make converts. "Inmates have a right
to practice their faith while they're incarcerated," said Mark Reamer, a
Roman Catholic priest who has celebrated mass at a Raleigh prison for
the past 16 years. "Chaplains ensure a certain fairness." —RNS