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

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

If the chaplains don't have what they need to accommodate a prisoner on hand, they have turn to the community for donations, writing letters and making calls until they get them the tools they need to worship, Feland said. At the Utah State Prison, they are always short on religious texts and, for some of the less common religions, it can be difficult to find volunteers.

About 55 percent of chaplains don't have enough Muslim volunteers, Pew reported. Thirty-five percent could use some more help from those of Pagan faiths like Wicca and Odinism. Twenty-two percent need more Christian volunteers.

"It's next to impossible to find a Satanism volunteer," Buckley said.

But they always do their best. If they don't, they may get sued. In recent years, religious freedom lawsuits coming out of American prisons have become commonplace. Fearing legal action, chaplains are spending increasing amounts of time playing detective and doing paperwork, according to Friedman.

"The definition of religious exercise is so overly broad that essentially anything an inmate claims to be a religious practice is legally considered a religious practice," he said. "We get sued and it's frustrating. We are supposed to be the good guys."

Changing hearts

Regardless of the drama, though, chaplains are still passionate about the power religion has to change inmates' lives. While chaplains spend a great deal of their time performing administrative duties and arranging religious services, 75 percent consider ministering to be the most important part of their job, according to Pew. Seventy-three percent of chaplains consider access to high-quality religious programs "absolutely critical" to rehabilitation. A majority — 57 percent — believe religious rehab programs have improved in quality within the past three years.

Eva Montanez, 45, who is doing time for theft, teared up when asked what Buckley's spiritual guidance meant to her. She was baptized a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a small child, but didn't pay much mind to her religion until she was sentenced to two years in prison. A year and a half in, she said, "The gospel has strengthened me to move forward in my life. I am very happy to have healing."

Buckley gave her a blessing when she was feeling lonely. He and Feland are often asked to bless inmates, expel evil spirits from cells or just listen as inmates try to figure out how their lives went wrong.

"He is there for us on a personal basis," Montanez said. "I don't feel like I'm alone in this."

The key to successful rehabilitation, chaplains said, is maintaining spiritual support after release. Ninety-seven percent of chaplains said continued support from religious groups is either "absolutely critical" or "very important," according to Pew.

But with heavy workloads and new inmates coming in daily, just 33 percent of chaplains said they follow up with former inmates after release, and there are few ministries that offer follow-up care to inmates. Inmates who try to enter the faith community on their own are often met with prejudice, chaplains said. It is easy to fall through the cracks.

Feland said he has met some of his "best friends" in prison. But any relationship forged behind bars is complex. Every once in a while, an inmate will call to say, "There's nothing out here for me. What do I do?"

But if former inmates don't reach out, he said, "I worry. Is it my place to bring up that part of their lives when they are trying to move on?"

That's not to say chaplains don't care.

There's nothing more discouraging than seeing an inmate who has been released show up on the prison church rolls again, Feland and Buckley said.

"You love them while they are here," Buckley said. "Then you send them out into the world and hope you never see them again. That's the best thing for them."

EMAIL: estuart@desnews.com

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