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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

The most common response to a query about the activity to which chaplains devote the most time was, "serving as an administrator helping to organize religious programs." And while this same job was often also listed among the most important roles for a chaplain, "personally leading worship services, religious instruction or counseling session" was consistently ranked as a higher (indeed, the highest) priority for respondents.

"Many of (the chaplains) talked about (their work) in the context of wanting to spend more time on the religious mission of their role," Funk said, but "(due to) budget cuts, they often were multi-tasking."

Their duties have become extensive. "The role of chaplains continues to be recast to suit the changing needs of the correctional system," Pew researchers wrote in the survey's preface. Chaplains must supervise volunteers, assist wardens to maintain security and shoulder a heavy paperwork load.

"They increasingly found they were just another bureaucrat," said Dr. Kent Kerley, a sociologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who has studied religiosity in prisons in the Deep South for a decade. He has interviewed chaplains about their role in prisons and their frustration with the push to multi-task.

"(One chaplain) said he felt like he was just another warden…he was filling out the paperwork and going through the motions," Kerley said. He emphasized that despite a heavy workload and a high level of education, chaplains are often poorly paid.

But state chaplains overall were positive about the systems they operate in as well. More than 60 percent of respondents said the correctional facility "works pretty well, only minor changes needed." A majority also said their systems were doing a good or an excellent job of maintaining order, meeting religious needs and providing self-improvement programs.

Less satisfactory were outcomes relating to the outside world: More than half of chaplains said services for helping inmates prepare for life after incarceration were only fair or poor.

Nearly every respondent expressed support for avoiding incarceration of non-violent, first-time offenders in favor of other sentences, like community service or counseling.

EMAIL: lmarostica@desnews.com

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