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."
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.
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."
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.3 comments on this story
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."