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.