n a society that honors religious diversity, it is alarming that so many of our jails limit inmate religious activities to single or major faith opportunities. By contrast, this article presents an overview of a professional chaplaincy program that provides for the religious needs of all inmates.
I firmly believe that any correctional chaplaincy program must be multifaith in philosophy. In other words, every inmate should be allowed to practice his or her faith while incarcerated. As a staff chaplain, I am committed to not only allowing individuals to practice their faith but to also encouraging them to practice their faith while they are incarcerated. Clearly, religious faith and spirituality have proven to provide positive effects on character development, recovery from addiction, personal transformation, and rehabilitation.
In my study of the major world religions, I find that all of them proclaim a moral value system that teaches their followers to take responsibility for themselves, their parents, spouse, and children. Each of the major world religions promotes selfless service, and has established moral prohibitions against murder, adultery, stealing, lying, covetousness, violence, cheating, etc. Every religion (with the exception of the Church of Satan, which we do not recognize as a legitimate religious group within our facility for safety and security reasons) has its own version of "The Golden Rule." In Judaism we read, "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary." [Hillel] In Hinduism, "This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you." [Maha bharata] In Taoism, "Regard your neighbor's gain as your own gain, and your neighbor's loss as vour own loss." [T ai Shang Kan Ying P'ien] In Buddhism, "Treat not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful." [Udana Varga] In Confucianism, "One word which sums up the basis of all good conduct, loving kindness. Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself." [Confucius] In Christianity, "In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets." Jesus of Nazareth] In Islam, "Not one of you truly believes until you wish for others what you wish for yourself." [The Prophet Muhammad]
Every major world religion promotes spiritual transformation and personal growth. Each proclaims a message of divine grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation when an individual sincerely repents for his or her crime (s) or sins, and seeks to lead a new life a life of moral discipline, ethical behavior, and personal responsibility for himself and for those who depend upon him (i.e. spouse, children, friends, etc.). It has been my observation that the clergy leaders I have brought into our facility have approached the inmates with an attitude not of harsh judgment, but with an attitude of acceptance, understanding, and compassion. Their willingness to come into the jail and be present with the inmate is very comforting and therapeutic. Thus, inmates think to themselves, "Someone cares enough to go out of his/her way to visit me and listen to my deepest thoughts, feelings, and concerns." Inmates of all faiths have also expressed to me feelings of guilt and shame for their unlawful actions which are often accompanied by feelings of rejection and isolation from society.
Recent legislation and legal decisions have asserted that an inmate has the right to believe in any religion, however unorthodox or unconventional. Therefore, intake counselors at our facility ask every inmate to voluntarily disclose what (if any) religious affiliation he or she has upon admission. When he/she is booked into our facility and declares a religious affiliation, he/she is asked to be as specific as possible and go beyond simply declaring themselves Protestant, Pentecostal, nondenominational, Christian, or "none." If they respond by identifying themselves as Catholic, Jewish, Methodist, Presbyterian, Mormon, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Baptist, etc., we try to help them clarify their answer as to particular denomination. For example, if they say that they are Jewish, we ask them if they are Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, etc. If they say that they are Native American, we ask them for their tribal affiliation such as Lakota, Navajo, Blackfoot, Ute, etc. If they simply reply "none" we ask if they are "atheist," "agnostic," "humanist," or have no denominational affiliation whatsoever. This information helps us in determining how to best meet the spiritual needs of the individual inmates while they are incarcerated at our facility.
All religious diets must be approved by me (as the chaplain). If a person tells the counselor that he or she is Baptist when booked into our facility and later demands a kosher diet, I refuse the request. I have found that in a high percentage of instances when one inmate who is Jewish requests a special kosher diet which is a legitimate request there are other inmates in neighboring cells or in the same module will who then ask for a kosher diet the next day requests that are not legitimate. Upon questioning them, I usually discover that they are not Jewish but want the special diet because the person in the next cell gets one. I look at their files under "religious affiliation" and often discover that the inmates reported to the counselor when they were booked in that they are of some faith other than Jewish. I then meet with the inmate in person and tell them that I have looked at their files and found that they did not declare their religious affiliation as Jewish, which ends the discussion as to whether or not they will get a kosher diet. My answer is "no." If an inmate asks to change his or her diet for religious purposes after they have been in our facility for ten days or more, the answer is also "no." In our detention center we have a rule in the inmate handbook that states, "Inmates may not request a change in their religious diets after they have been incarcerated in our facility for a period of ten days or more."
The steps that we have integrated into our intake process and rule book have eliminated a great deal of religious fraud or game playing. Many inmates are merely "copycats" when it comes to religion, imitating what the person next to them is practicing, or attempting to obtain the same diet or religious materials (such as rosaries, prayer rugs, feathers, books, etc.) and many of their religious requests are the result of curiosity. On the other hand, some are actually sincere in their desire to learn more about another faith. As the chaplain, I always tell the individual that it is okay to explore another faith, but that does not mean that they can automatically convert to that faith or receive a special religious diet or certain religious articles while they are in jail. They must first meet the requirements for membership in that particular religion as determined by a clergy leader from that faith community. The clergy leader then advises me as to what I should or should not supply to the inmate in terms of religious articles, books, diet, etc.
No religious group is preferred over any other for purposes of access to religious books, clergy visitation, or other needs related to the practice of their faith. Inmates are allowed to possess religious books, pamphlets, devotional guides, and other religious articles unless they present a danger to the safety and security of others. All religious articles are first approved by a staff sergeant who has been assigned by the sheriff's office to make decisions regarding whether or not a particular object is a threat to the safety or security of other inmates or staff members. We allow inmates to wear or use religious articles only in their cells not in common areas such as dayrooms, gymnasiums, classrooms, etc. This is for their own protection as there are a number of inmates who belong to certain "hate groups" (e.g., skinheads, KKK members, white supremacist groups, etc.) and who will physically harm someone wearing a particular religious item.
Materials and Volunteers
I keep a large inventory of books, worship materials, devotional guides, etc. representing all religious groups in our religious supply room. However, we only allow soft cover books to reduce the introduction of contraband into the facility such as drugs or needles that could be hidden in the binding of hard cover books.
Religious materials are distributed on a daily basis by volunteers who work in my department and have been certified to have direct one on one contact with inmates. All of my chaplaincy volunteers must agree to serve inmates of all faiths and distribute the religious books and materials appropriate to those faith groups.
We closely follow the guidelines suggested by the Colorado Department of Corrections Faith Group Handbook published in January 2000. This handbook as are similar publications from the federal Bureau of Prisons and other state corrections departments is an extremely helpful tool in providing for a truly multifaith ministry. It gives brief sketches of the theologies of particular religious groups and information on their holy days/festivals, worship practices (private and corporate), practitioners, special dietary requirements, medical treatments, funeral and burial practices, sacred literature, and religious items. Even though I work in a county detention facility, I follow the guidelines of our state D.O.C. handbook because about half of the inmates who are incarcerated in our facility have come from D.O.C. facilities and most of others will be going to D.O.C. facilities after their incarceration in our jail; wherefore maintaining consistency in religious rules and regulations from one correctional institution to another has reduced conflicts. I regularly refer to the handbook when advising detentions center staff who are involved with work release and inmate workers concerning work proscription days due to special religious observances. I have also provided copies of this handbook to various officers and to the sergeant who is the staff religious liaison.
Verification and Visits
In order to establish a truly multifaith chaplaincy program, I have recruited community religious practitioners from all of the major and relatively minor religious groups. Each of them has been fully certified to have a contact visit with inmates whenever called upon for a pastoral visit. The process of becoming certified involves a CCIC/NCIC background check, integrity interview, a training/ orientation period, personal references, ordination certificate, medical information, etc. This process takes about one month. He or she then receives a picture identification tag as a chaplain volunteer. When an inmate comes into our facility and wishes to have a pastoral counseling visit with a clergy person from his or her faith community I am able to call upon my cadre of clergy volunteers and have a visit within a day or two. I strongly recommend that every detention chaplain in a large setting do the same. It has been my experience that clergy from most faith groups are very cooperative and willing to assist our chaplaincy program in this way.
I also have clergy who are trained in pastoral psychology, some who have a Master's of Social Work, and some with Ph.D.'s in psychology. I call upon these people to do one-on-one counseling and teach classes (such as parenting, addiction recovery, anger people to do one on one counseling and teach classes (such as parenting, addiction recovery, anger management, meditation, effective communication, spiritual formation, etc.).
When a particular inmate requests to see a rabbi, imam, priest, priestess, guru, practitioner, elder, deacon, medicine man, minister, etc., I contact our clergy resource person of the specified denomination and ask him or her to visit the inmate. When these clergy first meet with inmates, they ask a series of questions in order to determine whether or not the inmates are legitimate members of the declared religious denominations. In the majority of cases, they are not. For the sake of expedience, the rabbi who is assigned by Jewish Family Services to visit incarcerated men and women of the Jewish faith prefers me to prescreen inmates claiming to be Jewish by asking a series of questions designed to determine if they are bona fide members of the Jewish faith. These questions relate to whether the inmate is Jewish by birth or by conversion, parents' Hebrew names, synagogue affiliation and location, rabbi's name, Jewish education, etc. Depending on how an inmate answers the questionnaire, the rabbi will decide whether or not come out to our facility for a personal visit with him or her.
Classes, Sciences, Learning About Other Jails
All of our chaplaincy classes are ecumenical and interfaith. Our Bible studies represent a generic Judeo Christian perspective. In other words, they are not highly doctrinal, dogmatic, or extreme. Rather, they are to be ecumenical in spirit. Bible class leaders are instructed to make sure that they do not make any disparaging remarks regarding any particular religious group. I do not permit pastors who are judgmental, condemnatory, or highly evangelical. Some people who call me requesting to work as a chaplain volunteer have the desire to proselytize as their primary agenda. Our mission and purpose in the chaplaincy department is not to proselytize, but to educate, to share information, and to assist individuals in their own faith development.
The spiritual foundation of all our chaplaincy courses is by its very nature broad, inclusive, nondogmatic, tolerant, and pluralistic. We do not wish to exclude anyone from participating in our chaplaincy program classes because of their particular religious affiliation. Many of the inmates who attend our classes have had very little or no religious education or training whatsoever prior to coming into our facility, which is the case in most detention facilities throughout the country. As chaplains, we have a great opportunity to assist individuals in taking the first steps in spiritual formation and faith development.
I have had to take certain steps to avoid having a particular religious group proselytize inmates. I have informed the group that they may only visit inmates who have specifically requested visits from them through kites [inmate requests] sent to me. I then contact the group's leader and give him the names, room numbers, and identification numbers of the inmates so that group members can have one on one contacts visit with the inmates. I also provide the front visiting lobby desk deputies with a bimonthly list of all inmates who are to be visited by the certified religious volunteers from this particular religious group. These lists match the names of the volunteers with the names of the inmates that they are visiting. I have had to take these steps because this particular religious group is highly aggressive in its efforts to proselytize inmates and I have received numerous complaints from pastors and family members of inmates and inmates themselves about this particular group's methods of evangelism. This has taken care of the problem in a satisfactory way.
Inmates will often inform me either verbally or through a written "kite" that they are interested in learning more about particular faiths. If clergy leaders of those faiths determine that the inmates are sincere in their desire to learn more and have the time to do so, they are allowed to begin a series of one on one educational classes with the clergy. I assist with scheduling their appointments in a contact visiting room, programs room, or classroom. The clergy volunteers usually recommend certain basic books that discuss the history, doctrines, and tenets of their religion. They often give or loan those books to inmates after they have been approved and determined to not be contraband. When clergy do not have books to loan, I am usually able to assist by acquiring books from local religious bookstores or from publishing houses. I do have an ample allowance for book purchases in my budget and, in addition, friends and relatives of inmates will frequently mail in books from a local bookstores. I ask inmates to return books that were purchased from the chaplaincy program and book budget when they leave our facility. However, I have found that only about 25 percent of the inmates do return the books when they are released. Also, many religious publishing houses are supportive of jail/prison ministry and sell their books to correctional facilities at a significantly reduced price.
We have Catholic masses for our Catholic inmates and ecumenical services for all other inmates. Many Catholic inmates who attend the Catholic mass on Saturday or Wednesday also attend the ecumenical services on Sunday. Our Catholic inmates are permitted to receive a rosary only from the priests, deacons, and Eucharistic ministers who perform services in our facility. This greatly reduces religious fraud. Inmates are asked when they were baptized and confirmed, to recite the "Hail Mary's" and "The Lord's Prayer." They are asked which parish they belong to and the name of their priest. If they cannot answer those basic questions, they are not issued a rosary. Incidentally, all of our rosaries are white and have very thin string connecting the beads. We initially had a problem with gang members taking rosaries of various colors and putting together necklaces with their particular gang "colors." We decided to give out only white rosaries as a means of taking care of the problem, which it has.
We have only a few Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Wicca, Native American, Mormon, or other minority faith inmates in our facility at any given time and not enough of any of these faiths who are allowed to be together to warrant group worship services. We must separate men from women, pretrial from sentenced, and various security levels [i.e. maximum, medium, and minimum]. Consequently, I make special arrangements for cleared clergy persons from these faith groups to have one on one worship services or studies of their sacred scriptures.
An Islamic Imam comes to our facility whenever requested and meets with inmates who claim to be Muslim. He asks them a series of questions in order to determine whether or not they are indeed Muslim. If they are not, he gives them some basic literature about the Islamic faith to read. During Ramadan, we serve our Muslim inmates breakfast before sunrise and serve their lunch meal together with their dinner meal after sundown so that they receive an adequate amount of nutrition. Our facility does not serve any pork or pork by products to any of our inmates out of respect for the Jewish and Muslim dietary laws prohibiting the consuming of pork. This very helpful policy is already standard in many prisons and jails and one which I would recommend to all detention centers
In Colorado jails, about 2.2 percent of the total offender population is self declared Wicca. Therefore, a Wicca priest and priestess are now certified chaplaincy volunteers and thus able to meet one on one with Wicca inmates or groups of inmates for their religious rituals. Recently, I met with three Wicca inmates and their priest and priestess in a module classroom to discuss the basic tenets of Wicca. I find that most jail staff are not well informed about Wicca and often have misconceptions based on faulty information about this particular faith group. Wicca is often confused with Satanic cults which couldn't be further from the truth. The Wicca faith stresses personal responsibility and is grounded on the ethical admonition "Harm None." The Wicca clergy who come into our facility believe that positive spiritual growth is critical in helping inmates overcome their criminal thinking and behaviors. In my experience, Wicca devotees are concerned, involved, and responsible citizens. Wicca inmates are given basic books of their faith, are allowed to have tarot cards, and worship together once a week in a classroom (if their security level classification permits).
I have student interns from our local seminaries- Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, Buddhist who are working on their Clinical Pastoral Education certification or are in an advanced field service training program in order to complete their on site clinical requirements for the Master's of Divinity degree. Our link with these local universities and seminaries has enabled me to provide a truly multi faith chaplaincy program. The students are eager to lead services, teach classes, and do one on one pastoral counseling. They have taught classes in parenting, spirituality, and addiction, stress management, Houses of Healing seminars [an excellent curriculum written by Robin Casarjian specifically for incarcerated people], meditation, anger management, effective communication techniques, forgiveness of self and others, basic theology, etc.
|I also have clergy who are trained in pastoral psychology, some who have a Master's of Social Work, and some with Ph.D.'s in psychology. I call upon these people to do one-on-one counseling and teach classes (such as parenting, addiction recovery, anger management meditation, effecfive communication, spiritual formation, etc.).|
Clearly, the most effective programs that focus on inmate rehabilitation or transformation have a spiritual foundation. We work toward bringing about changed hearts and changed minds. Unless we change a person's way of thinking, we will not change their way of behaving. A person who is struggling with an addiction to drugs and alcohol needs to rely on a transcendent power beyond his or her own individual willpower and also needs a supportive community of caring people who are patient, understanding, and nonjudgmental, yet hold the person accountable for his actions.
The best chaplaincy programs in a correctional setting are those that are based on respect for all religious groups, their beliefs and their practices. As Americans, we consider that freedom of religion is a basic right and America has become the most pluralistic nation in the world. Our governmental institutions correctional facilities included should not give preferential treatment to one religious group over another. This is not a philosophical problem for me as a Christian minister because I do not believe that only one religion has a corner on "the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth." For me, that would be a spiritually arrogant, self righteous, and judgmental position to take.
As a correctional chaplain, I have had the opportunity to learn much more about other faith traditions than when I was previously serving as a pastor in suburban United Methodist churches. I have discovered that many of my preconceptions and prejudices about certain religious groups were based on my own ignorance, have found that we have much more in common than I had ever imagined, and have been able to go beyond the boundaries of my little denominational box.
Correctional chaplaincy is one of the most rewarding types of ministry there is and my spiritual horizons have been greatly expanded as a result of my accepting the call to serve in this specialized setting. It has been a blessing and privilege for me to serve in this way and I find that most other jail and prison chaplains share these sentiments.
In the four years I have served as a jail chaplain at a detention center with a population of over a thousand inmates, I have received many thank you notes from former inmates and family members expressing appreciation for allowing, facilitating, and encouraging them to practice their faith during their period of incarceration.
Yes, there are some inmates who are simply playing games when it comes to religious practices, but I hope that I have provided some helpful information toward reducing such abuses and redirecting inmates to better paths. At AJA's upcoming Birmingham jail Expo I and other American Correctional Chaplains Association members will be conducting a workshop entitled Real Religious Practices vs. Cults, Gangs, and Manipulations. We invite you, to join us there and learn more about effective chaplaincy tools and programs.
Robert Toll, D. Min., is the Chaplain at the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office in Golden, Colorado. He can be reached at (303) 271 5398.