New survey of prison chaplains shines light on religious life in jail

Published: Thursday, March 22 2012 10:54 a.m. MDT

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Four out of 10 state prison chaplains say religious extremism is somewhat or very common in the correctional facilities where they work, according to a survey released today by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Three-quarters of the chaplains who responded to the survey said converting from one religion to another was somewhat or very common among inmates. Muslims, Protestants and pagan or earth-based religions were the groups most commonly cited as growing.

"You see a more visible presence (in prisons) for what in the general public would be very small religious groups," said lead researcher Stephanie Boddie of the growth of Muslim and pagan practitioners.

The new research, released today, highlights the difference between faith lived in the general public and faith lived behind bars. According to the researchers, the findings provide rare insight into the religious lives of America's inmates, as well as the chaplains who serve them.

The Pew Forum collected data from 730 chaplains working in state correctional facilities in all 50 states. The survey, "Religion in Prisons: A 50-State Survey of Prison Chaplains," provides a unique opportunity to further understand the lives of chaplains, who "really sit at the intersection" of two uniquely American phenomena, said lead researcher Cary Funk.

The United States is both, according to Funk, "the most religious of industrial democracies," and the country with the highest incarceration rates per capita. "We thought there would be a lot of public interest in religion behind bars," she said.

"There is so little information about the religious lives of inmates" available to the public, Boddie said.

The survey more than a year to compile. It also sought to provide insight into questions that have infiltrated recent public concerns, such as former inmates' recidivism, the state of the prison system and especially, the possibility of religious extremism blossoming within prisons.

Religious extremism in prisons

A majority of the state prison chaplains surveyed said religious extremism is not too common or not at all common in their facilities. However, what researchers called "a sizable minority" — 41 percent — of chaplains surveyed said religious extremism is somewhat or very common. And more chaplains working in maximum or medium security facilities said extremism was very or somewhat common than those working in minimum security prisons.

Chaplains were also asked to break down the presence of extremism within 12 different religious groups. Researchers found 57 percent of respondents said extremism was very or somewhat common, which for the survey's purposes included followers of the Nation of Islam and the Moorish Science Temple of America. Thirty-nine percent of chaplains who responded said extremism was also somewhat or very common in pagan or earth-based religions.

The findings, however, did not relate to safety. Three-quarters of state chaplains said religious extremism threatened prison security "not too often" (26 percent) or "almost never" (50 percent).

And in fact, the term 'extremism' was defined in a variety of ways by the respondents, who were asked to explain what "extreme religious views" meant in their own words.

Two of the most common answers were espoused racial supremacy and intolerance of other religions, under the guise of religious dogma. A quarter of the descriptions of extremism talked about prisoners using religious groups as a front for non-religious practices, like gang activity or promoting violence or rape.

But another quarter of chaplains who used their own words referred to inmates' requests for special practices, clothing or food. "Some chaplains expressed frustration over requests that they view was bogus or extreme," the survey noted, "such as seeking raw meat for a Voodoo ritual or a religious diet consisting of goat's milk, vegetables and oatmeal with sugar."

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