Prison chaplains: The ups and downs of ministering to the incarcerated

Published: Tuesday, April 10 2012 12:36 a.m. MDT

Prison chaplain Lonn Buckley talks with inmate Eva Montanez at the Utah State Prison Timpanogos Facility in Draper Thursday, April 5, 2012.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

There are errands to be run and a big stack of mail that needs his attention, but Lonn Buckley doesn't hesitate when the woman, short and stout with earnest brown eyes, asks to chat for a minute. "I've been sitting on this for a while, but it's been bugging me," she says, taking a seat in his office, a small room with cinder block walls, bare except for few crookedly hung pictures of Christ. "I just had to tell someone."

She fiddles with a ballpoint pen as she tells him about her problems. A Bible rests in her lap, partially covering the "i" in the word "inmate," which is printed vertically down the leg of her maroon scrubs. Buckley leans forward in his seat, listening intently. This is one of his favorite parts of his job as a chaplain at the Utah State Prison.

Prison chaplains are more than just preachers. They provide spiritual guidance and support for prisoners, promote a peaceful environment and safeguard the religious rights of the incarcerated. It's a demanding job that, in recent years, has gotten tougher. As budget cuts have forced many states to consolidate positions, prison chaplains have had to take on more and more duties.

"People think that chaplains are ministers who go into the prisons to save souls and whatnot," said Gary Friedman, spokesman for the American Correctional Chaplains Association. "That's not what chaplains do anymore. Chaplains are very frustrated about not having enough time to minister."

Safeguarding rights

When an inmate asked to use his desk phone to call home on his first day at work a couple decades back, Utah State Prison Chaplain Bob Feland exuberantly agreed. Word spread and soon there was a line of scrub-clad ladies spilling out of the building onto the concrete track the inmates used for exercise.

"I was the most popular person on the grounds," he recalled.

But security quickly squashed that idea. It was his first introduction to what he calls a "complex balance" of ministering to inmates' spiritual needs while maintaining a safe environment. In order to attend any of the prison's religious programs, which range from worship services to Bible study, inmates must first obtain a security clearance. Since a stabbing incident at the family history research center last year, an officer must oversee all religious gatherings. There is a "nothing in, nothing out" policy.

"If someone has a cough and I have a lozenge in my pocket, I can't give it to them," he said. "If an inmate missed mail call and his wife needs money for food, I can't deliver it. It can be really tough on your heart."

For Feland and Buckley, both gray-haired men with wise eyes and heavily etched smile lines, the first order of business most days is shuffling through letters from inmates requesting religious accommodations. They ask for easy-reader copies of the Koran. They need a rosary. They want a sweat lodge for a Native American spiritual ceremony. They'd like a kosher diet.

"Unless there is a safety concern, we almost always say yes," Feland said. "The ability to express spirituality is a basic human need."

At the same time, though, the chaplains acknowledge that prisoners can be manipulative and may not be genuine with their requests. After declaring he was Jewish and requesting a kosher diet, for example, one inmate followed with another letter asking, "What do Jews believe?"

"In prison, it becomes a control issue," Buckley said. "When you don't have your freedom, you latch on to any little thing that might demonstrate your individuality."

Not all chaplains are as open-minded as Feland and Buckley. About 82 percent of chaplains across the country "usually approve" requests for religious books or texts, according to a recent nationwide survey conducted by The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. But just 53 percent usually approve requests for special religious diets and just 28 percent approve requests for special hairstyles or grooming.

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