Editor's Note: This article is the last of a three part series written by mem- bers of the American Correctional Chaplains Association about chap- lains'role in the corrections commurnty.
rison chaplains bring a shred of hope, a sliver of light to a dark and regimented world. Inmates can stand almost anything if they believe it will not last forever. They can tolerate incredible loss, mental pain and even injustice if it has a purpose; endure cold separation if they believe their life has meaning; have courage to change if they believe in forgiveness and ultimate victory; and be transformed if they believe God is the final judge.
Many in corrections believe that chaplains are among the most important staff in prisons. One warden once said, "Here in the pit of hell, God is the only hope, and chaplains represent that hope." A deputy warden stated, "Chaplains soften the tense atmosphere and lift morale." During a meeting with a panel of wardens at the 1976 American Correctional Association Congress of Correction in Milwaukee, one warden spoke about the possibility of paid, professional chaplains being replaced by volunteer community clergy. In response, another warden said, "Take away anyone else, but please don't take away my chaplain."
The First Correctional Chaplains
Prison chaplains make the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution real because even though inmates have lost many other freedoms, the First Amendment states that Congress shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion. A professionally trained chaplain can sort out the difference between a religion and a gang or hoax. Chaplains can make proper provision for the exercise of true religion.
Organized religion entered prisons in the 1700s and 1800s, before other prison programs were established. Clergy came to jails and prisons to help offenders repent. Besides conducting religious services, some brought in food and supplies, met with inmate families and taught classes. Outside the prison walls, they advocated prison reform. Historically, clergy members were also the unofficial social workers or counselors in prisons because the only other staff present were correctional officers and work supervisors. Before teachers or counselors, clergy tended the spiritual, therapeutic and social needs of inmates. In other words, chaplains were the first treatment staff in prisons.
Built in 1829, Eastern Penitentiary in Cherry Hill, Pa., still stands as one of the oldest U.S. prisons. It is now a museum that offers tours, presenting its colorful history. Initially, inmates were in solitary cells and permitted nothing but a Bible.
The old Eastern Penitentiary was built on the Quaker idea of solitary confinement for meditation and penitence (hence, penitentiary). A clergyman or chaplain would stand at the end of the hall and holler his sermon down the cell block while inmates put their ears to their cell's small, window like openings to hear him. Later, a chapel and synagogue were built inside the prison walls.
Chaplaincy has come a long way since the days when community clergy would visit inmates primarily to "save souls," and when the sermons were hollered down the hall to inmates locked in cells. Chaplains were one of the first organized groups of corrections professionals. In fact, ACA records indicate that the American Correctional Chaplains Association was the first affiliate group to join it in 1876. Today in prisons, there are often beautiful chapels or separate multipurpose rooms and a professional chaplain and guest speakers.
Present Day Chaplaincy
Today, chaplains do not usually counsel between bars in unconfidential, open hallways. They often have private rooms or offices. Inmates can be in the privacy of a chaplain's office when they receive word of the death of a loved one or participate in weekly group pastoral counseling sessions in private rooms.
Chaplains not only teach religious subjects now, but other helpful relational topics such as conflict resolution skills. In 1986, 20 inmates at SCI Muncy took a lay speaking course, which teaches the technique of interpreting the Bible, constructing a sermon and public speaking. Today, one of the inmates who took this class has since been released and is now a local pastor in a church.
Chaplains are still the spiritual leaders behind bars, but these days, they are not always male, not always ordained and not always Christian. The staff chaplain must have an ecumenical and interfaith spirit. He or she is responsible for the spiritual needs of all inmates, not just the ones that adhere to the principles of the chaplain's own faith.
Many chaplains have been heard saying, "It's not the inmates that are the problem, it's the staff," while correctional officers have been heard saying, "The soft headed chaplain is always being conned by the inmates and volunteers. He just can't recognize phony religious roles inmates are taking on." Besides the definite division between staff and inmates the guards and the guarded there is also tension between treatment staff and correctional officers. These separations can be like jagged canyons if the chaplain is a lone ranger or a special volunteer who is not seen as part of the team. Chaplains need people skills to communicate effectively with all and must use spiritual discernment to balance religious needs and security.
Truly, with prison staff, everyone is security and everyone is treatment, no matter what the job title. Security is the bottom line in every activity or program, even religious services. Every competent chaplain understands that without safety, programs cannot exist.
A chaplain carries many of the same duties as a congregational pastor, but the nature of his or her fenced flock requires training and relational talent. Prison chaplains provide pastoral counseling, religious teaching and preaching, lead worship for their own faith, conduct funeral and/or memorial services and give death notices. Full time staff chaplains recruit, train and coordinate volunteers.
They also may have the responsibility of walking with a death row inmate to the execution chamber. In addition, in prisons that allow inmate mothers to keep their infants with them, family ministry is very much a part of prison chaplaincy. Also, some chaplains minister to teenage and youthful offenders in boot camps, detention centers and youth forestry camps, while some hold prayer groups for AIDS and/or mentally ill patients or are part of hostage negotiation teams. Each setting requires training, unique gifts and the power of God to open hearts.
Professional chaplains make provisions for the practice of all religious services and provide resources to all the inmates, even those who are not of their faith. They will arrange for religious volunteers or contract clergy to offer Buddhist, Native American or Wicca worship even though they may not be of that faith group. Sometimes this can be a challenge requiring expertise and training.
An inmate named Joe had been incarcerated in many prisons throughout Pennsylvania for about 20 years before he was transferred to SCI Muncy as a lifer. He made an appointment with the chaplain to discuss his faith needs. The chaplain was startled to learn that Joe considered himself a Satan worshipper and was requesting a satanic bible, which the facility did not have. Having concerns about Joe's faith, the chaplain questioned his views but Joe insisted it was his right and he wanted a satanic bible.
According to the state's commissioner of corrections, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recognized Satanism as a legitimate religion, and as long as the practice of his faith did not interfere with or harm others, he could practice it, so the facility placed a satanic bible in the library. In response to the chaplain's interactions with Joe, petitions filed by other inmates went to the administration complaining that the chaplain was a witch because she was counseling him. They said that the chaplain was holding secret coven meetings and that she should be removed from her position. The inmates' petitions proved unsuccessful and the chaplain continued to relate positively to Joe and counseled him several times about family matters.
During one of the counseling sessions with the chaplain, Joe was beginning to question Satanism and later admitted that he had been a Roman Catholic as a child. The chaplain suggested that he attend Yokefellow, a small Christian discussion group in the prison led by outside volunteers. After attending for one month, he joined Yokefellow, began to attend church and became a strong Christian. One day, the chaplain asked him what had happened over the past month and he whispered, "I never was a Satan worshipper. But it scared ... the other inmates on the yard when they thought I was. It was a great protection."
Had the chaplain not shown him respect, had she revealed to others that his satanist views were made up, and strongly confronted his views or thrown scriptures at him when he first came to see her, he may never have found a positive faith. There could have been a power struggle, he might have pressed a lawsuit or it could have drawn more attention to his cause. Joe's case forced the chaplain to use diplomacy, counseling, legal knowledge and teaching skills. She had to rely on her faith for every move and word. The chaplain believes that these techniques caused Joe to change his views. However, had Joe's journey led him deeper into Satanism, as a professional chaplain, she would have had to respect his rights and provide for them, as long as it did not interfere with the freedom and faith of others.
Joe was one of only five inmates who had his life sentence commuted by Pennsylvania Gov. Bob Casey in the late 1980s. After he was released from prison, he visited the chaplain often and became an active church member and trustee of the Harris Street United Methodist Church in Harrisburg, Pa. He and several other ex inmates have helped the chaplain with prison ministry, assisting in the establishment of two halfway houses and a program for inmate families.
In many jails and prisons, administrators think they are saving money by allowing nonprofit groups or volunteers to replace professionally trained chaplains. However, riots and security breaches are often the result. In Pennsylvania, one zealous unprofessional prison chaplain was removed and accused of contributing to a riot. In Colorado, privately paid evangelistic chaplains who provided only their own religion to inmates caused the prison to be sued because the Jewish inmates' religious needs were not being met.
A professional chaplain is trained to avoid these pitfalls. It is best for a warden or personnel team to acquire chaplaincy candidate names through a council of churches or interfaith commission that will check credentials. They also should have an outside representative of that group sit on the interview team, at least as an observer, when a chaplain is being selected. This will ensure better results, preventing prison staff from hiring a friend who shares the same religious views or, conversely, a stranger without verified credentials who simply sent an application.
The men and women behind bars are somebody's brother, sister, parent and child. They deserve qualified, professional chaplains. In the same way that many people would not want an untrained person performing surgery on them, it should also be found intolerable that nonprofessionals are able to practice religion on inmates. In a day when terrorism can even find its way into prison cells, quality religious professionals must be provided to offenders.
Inmates live in a cold and sometimes scary, dangerous place. Chaplains should provide comfort and safety, not division and fear. Professional prison chaplains are God's partners. They touch hearts and bring inner change. They bring a sliver of meaning and hope to thousands who must live behind walls and fences.
Judith Coleman is the former chaplain at State Correctional Institution at Muncy, Pa. Currently, she is chaplain at two state youth facilities Youth Forestry Camp 2 in Whitehaven, Pa., and Loysville Youth Detention Center in Loysville, Pa. Coleman is also vice president of the American Correctional Chaplains Association.