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

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

Who are the chaplains?

Profiles of the chaplains themselves, the researchers pointed out, could affect their perceptions of extreme religious views. The majority of chaplains surveyed are white, male and Christian. They also tend to be highly educated and conservative on social issues, political issues and their own theology.

"Chaplains' judgment about how often they're encountering extreme views…(is) subject to all kinds of perceptions," Boddie said. Funk added that the public may be surprised by the chaplains' definitions of religious extremism, because the inmates' practices don't necessarily reflect the anti-government sentiment most commonly associated with extremism in a post-Sept. 11 world.

As for the respondents' own religious views, seven out of 10 chaplains said they were Protestant, and 44 percent overall professed a commitment to evangelical Protestantism. Fifteen percent of chaplains were part of a mainline Protestant tradition and 7 percent associated with a historically black Protestant tradition. Catholic chaplains made up 13 percent of total respondents, Muslim chaplains claimed 7 percent and Jewish chaplains 3 percent.

Instances of perceived inmate religious extremism varies according to chaplain affiliation. For example, chaplains who identified Protestant were more likely to find extreme religious views somewhat or very common in their facilities than either Muslim or Catholic chaplains.

Conversion behind bars

"Religion in Prisons" also asked chaplains about the rates of conversion, or "switching," between incarcerated religious groups.

About three-quarters of respondents said attempts to proselytize or convert between inmates are either somewhat or very common. A slightly higher percentage — 77 percent total — of state chaplains reported seeing "a lot" or "some" religion switching. According to the chaplains, three groups were growing due to conversion: Muslims (reported by about half of respondents), Protestants (47 percent of respondents) and Pagan/earth-based religions (34 percent, another sizable minority).

As with the issue of religious extremism, the survey's open-ended questions to chaplains teased out nuances of the findings on conversion. Some respondents, for example, questioned the depth of inmates' conversions.

"You cannot draw any valid conclusions regarding religion in prisons by examining religion changes in offenders," one chaplain wrote. "These decisions are primarily privilege-based and not religiously based in my experience."

"It's not always clear how long-lived that conversion is," said Boddie, noting that many chaplains said inmates often switched religions in order to gain special accommodations or food. "These freedoms that seem small" in the outside world, Boddie said, could be deemed much more important in prison. In other studies of religious conversion in the general public, she noted, motivations appear significantly different.

The general public, significantly, also looks quite different in demographic makeup than prisons do. The growing numbers of Muslims and especially Pagan or earth-based converts in correctional facilities are not at all parallel to their presence in mainstream America, where they exist only as a tiny minority.

The role of prison chaplains

Respondents to the survey were asked about themselves as well as their inmates, revealing a generally satisfied but not apathetic group and providing broader insight into the prison system as a whole.

More than six out of 10 chaplains said they are very satisfied with their jobs, and three in 10 reported being somewhat satisfied. Only 6 percent of respondents showed dissatisfaction.

Some frustration was evident in the survey's queries over a perceived discrepancy between which chaplain duties were most important versus which duties were most time-consuming.

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