The Easiest Cut Is the Deepest

Why States Are Getting Rid of Prison Chaplains

A close friend’s son recently began a prison sentence. When he entered the “correctional institution,” he told the authorities he was a Presbyterian. The following Sunday he asked to be allowed to attend church services. He was told there were no services for Presbyterians because there was no Presbyterian chaplain for that large regional facility. So he asked to be allowed to attend any Christian service. This request was also denied. After he told his parents about this during a visit, they asked his lawyer to look into it. She was finally able to talk with someone in charge, and now my friend’s son is attending Mass: the prison still has a Catholic chaplain—at least for now.

A few days after I heard about the problems my friend’s son was having, the priest at my parish mentioned in his homily that New York State was considering cutting all funding for prison chaplains. This astonished me. I started to wonder if my friend’s story was part of a larger trend.

Apparently it is. In 2011 North Carolina’s legislature voted to eliminate all funding for chaplains serving correctional institutions. According to Gary Friedman of the American Correctional Chaplains Organization, North Carolina later restored 33 percent of the funding, but it was still a drastic cut. Similar proposals are pending in other state legislatures. Some are cutting funding immediately; others are simply not replacing chaplains when they die or retire. One state’s commissioner of corrections recently told a statewide chaplains’ conference: “I am mandated to secure, educate, and medicate—religion is not an essential part of that mandate.” Friedman reports that New York State has seen its corps of prison chaplains reduced by nearly 50 percent over the past two years because of a hiring freeze. He pointed out that the hiring freezes have also cut into the remaining chaplains’ support staff—their administrative assistants and volunteer coordinators—which has left the chaplains themselves with more paperwork to do and less time for religious services and counseling. 

Four years since the start of the Great Recession, most states are still scrambling to balance their budgets in the face of declining revenue. All across the country, states have laid off teachers and firefighters and scaled back programs for the poor. These are painful cuts that can threaten the political careers of legislators and governors. Cutting prison budgets, by contrast, is unlikely to provoke a public outcry. Access to a prison chaplain is widely considered a privilege granted to the undeserving rather than a right. Many people seem to feel that society isn’t obliged to accommodate the religious commitments of lawbreakers.

This attitude is unworthy of a civilized nation with strong Christian roots. “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you are also in the body,” Paul writes in his Letter to the Hebrews. Compassion for prisoners is the one part of the gospel mandate to which many Christians don’t even pay lip service, and it is a part of the gospel of special relevance in the United States, which has the highest incarceration rate in the world. A disproportionate number of the nation’s prisoners are black, and most of them come from the lower economic strata. In other words, the system is rife with inequities. Are we to add to these one more by failing to provide prisoners with chaplaincy services?

Ironically, an increase in religious diversity among prisoners may be contributing to the marginalization of chaplaincy programs. A recently retired priest explained the situation to me: “When I first entered the chaplaincy some fifty years ago, there were basically three religions represented: Protestant—usually main line—Catholic, and Jewish. Because of demographic and cultural changes, the chaplaincy corps must now cover the needs of Muslims, Native Americans (who have a renewed interest in their religious traditions), Rastafarians, followers of neo-pagan Odinism, and an ever-growing list of older and new religions. The logistics of trying to provide for the spiritual needs of an increasingly diverse prison population was difficult before the recent budget and staff shortages. Now it’s a nightmare.” Most chaplains do what they can for prisoners who belong to religions that don’t have their own chaplains. The retired chaplain told me about a rabbi he knew who was particularly helpful in covering for other religious services—even an occasional Muslim prayer service. There is no overtime pay for most chaplains, so the extra work they do is purely voluntary. The real problem, though, isn’t what they’re paid but how little time they have—not even enough to take care of their own flock, let alone those outside it.

Catholic chaplains are squeezed not only by staff and funding cuts at prisons but also by the needs and priorities of their bishops. As the recently retired chaplain told me, “Catholic bishops…have particularly difficult choices to make. Do they assign one or more priests full-time as prison chaplains in their dioceses, or do they staff a parish or two, also desperately in need of sacramental ministers? Most of the time the needs of the parish take priority. They try to fill any gaps in the ministry to prisoners with specially trained deacons, nuns, other religious, or lay people, with a priest assigned to say Masses and provide the other sacraments on a limited schedule.”

Correctional institutions are tasked with correcting inmates—with preparing them to reenter society as good citizens. Prison chaplains have long helped with this important work by offering the resources of a religious community to people with few other communities to support them. If Christian voters and politicians allow prison chaplaincies to disappear, it will hurt not only prisoners and the neighborhoods to which they return, but also the rest of our society, which will have chosen to neglect the spiritual well-being of a group Christ specifically commanded us to take care of.

Related: Worth Taking a Chance, by Joseph Sorrentino
Cruel and Unusual, by Robert DeFina and Lance Hannon

About the Author

Wayne Sheridan is a freelance journalist, poet, and communications consultant to nonprofits. He lives with his wife, Sandra Dutton, on a farm in the Hudson Valley, north of New York City.



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The states aren't the only entities that are pulling back on prison chaplaincies.  The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle recently announced that it was eliminating chaplaincy funding at the Pierce County Jail and Remann Hall (juveniles) as of July 1.  As a hospice Chaplain, I visit and support people from across the spiritual and religious spectrum.  Fortunately for me, my organization understands and supports spiritual care and its difference from purely sectarian work.  It appears that the Archdiocese of Seattle does not.  If that truly is the case, it is telling that Archdiocesan managers apparently don't believe there are enough Roman Catholics in jail to justify the expense. 

These are the least of these and as a Christian I cannot support the practice of these cuts.  Cut free health insurance for the president and all those who in Washington get such. I am sure we would have a little money to hire these chaplins.

Sobering.  Thanks for the article.

Without knowing the history and the numbers, it's impossible to put this much into a proper context, but it is no doubt part of the wider secularizing trend in American society.  Organized religion is on the defensive nearly everywhere.

I wonder whether states - and the federal government - would be amenable to volunteer chaplains.  Would they offer them office space and credentials, or has religion become so unimportant to governments that any official religious presence is considered too costly?

David Smith, thank you; it is both a sobering and sad situation. Although my instincts tell me "the wider secularizing trend in American Society" is exacerbating the situation, none of the chaplains I interviewed said it was a prime cause.

More volunteers may help to fill part of the gap, but they cannot make up for the shortages, let alone disappearance of professional chaplains. In New York State prisons, where I now live, volunteers do not have the same staus as professional chaplains. They do not have keys to most areas of the prison. They must be accompanied by guards wherever they go; whereas, with certain limits, chaplains have broader access. Also, it is hard to recruit, train and maintain volunteers. Because many prisons are in rural areas, far from major metropolitan centers, from which originate a large portion of the inmate population, it is sometimes near impossible to serve Catholic, Jewish and Islamic inmates with volunteers, as these religions usually do not have a large enough presence in rural areas to represent a large enough volunteer pool. This is not always the case with Evangelicals and certain mainline Protestant denominations. Volunteers may supplement the work of professional chaplains; but, it is almost impossible for the shortages to be made up by volunteers.

Wayne, your comments are on point. I do not know any prison chaplains but I do know 2 hospital chaplains. A chaplain is of great importance in both venues. Further, from my point of view as a Lutheran I may prefer a Lutheran chaplain but if not available then any denomination would do as well as a Jewish chaplain. Your article made me think, which is a good thing.

Steve Imhoff

Chaplains of different denominations and religions do try to cover for each other. For some specifically religious services,  an inmate of the same denomination or an volunteer, if qualifed and available, may conduct the services while the "covering" chaplain makes the arrangements and may oversee. This may vary a bit from State to State, and perhaps prison to prison. However, with the number of chaplains severely reduced in more and more States, there often may be no chaplain of any denomination availabe for any service or for counseling when needed.

I wish our "correctional" facilities were truly there to help correct and help inmates enter society better equipped to be productive members of their families, communities, etc.  It seems that, overall, the prison system has abandoned that effort due to the costs associated with providing the requisite services and a growing societal perspective that prisons exist primarily, if not solely to exact punishment.  In so many ways our society is becoming pretty graceless when it comes to dealing with those who transgress the law and norms of our culture.  Since most people in prison are "getting what they deserve," and even when they get out will forever be tagged by their crime, our society has little tolerance for the idea that they could possibly benefit from religious instruction, worship, etc. 

Unfortunately, the U. S. Supreme Court has not been sympathetic to the absolute right of prisoners to their First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion.  They have seen prisoners as a special class of people, whose rights can be truncated in the interest of safety, convenience, and cost (in terms of time, money, space, etc.)  While many states have sought to remedy this situation by passing some version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, to restore the rights of prisoners to religious counsel, the constraints of budgets, along with the increasing religious diversity of the prison population, has made insuring those rights nearly impossible for states.

The matter gets further complicated when state and federal governments start making determinations about the legitimacy of one religion over another--which puts them in clear danger of violation the establishment clause of the first amendment.  This causes many of them to throw up their hands and decide to avoid the problem by not providing chaplains to anyone.

We need a more intense and enlightened dialogue about our prison systems in this country, one that should take place both within churches, as well as in the larger interfaith communities. 

I think the cutting of funds for prison chaplains is the easiest cut, but not just because inmates are forgotten people, but because it is often easier to say 'no' than it is to deal with the issues surrounding those funds and services.

Thanks for reminding us of a place where the church needs to be more engaged, both in providing ministry, as well as in advocating for it.

I am a prison chaplain.  For me, the most important aspect of professional prison chaplaincy is the ability to confront abuse and defend the marginalized on the inside of a very complicated prison system.  A volunteer does not have the protection of employment that a professional has and is limited in defending the dignity and rights of the human person within the structural system.


There are also very different ways of doing prison chaplaincy among denominations, and therefore, oftentimes very subtle oppression of religious groups by chaplains who may not respect the dignity of individual conscience.  That is why a "generic" chaplains is never really "generic" at all.  He or she comes with his or her own religious perspective and some religious perspectives do not support the sacred conscience as our tradition does.

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