Survey describes faith behind bars

By Helen T. Gray

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Published: Wednesday, May 9 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

For example, 44 percent of chaplains in maximum security prisons and 42 percent in medium security prisons said religious extremism is very or somewhat common, compared with 32 percent of chaplains in minimum security prisons.

Also, Protestant chaplains were more likely than Catholic or Muslim chaplains to say that religious extremism is either very or somewhat common, and the view was stronger among white evangelical Protestant chaplains than white mainline Protestants.

The chaplains said religious extremism was either very common (22 percent) or somewhat common among Muslims (36 percent), including followers of the Nation of Islam and the Moorish Science Temple of America. Thirty-nine percent said they encountered religious extremism among inmates that practice pagan and Earth-based religions.

Nevertheless, 76 percent of chaplains said religious extremism rarely or almost never pose a security threat.

An open-ended question tried to assess what chaplains regarded as extreme. The answers were wide-ranging.

The most common reply was racism disguised as religious dogma, which included racial intolerance or prejudice. This went both ways, as both black and white inmates expressed racial superiority.

Other answers included hostility toward gays and lesbians, negative views of women and intolerance toward sex offenders.

An almost equal number of chaplains said extremism included religious intolerance, such as expressions of religious superiority and attempts to coerce others into their beliefs.

Requests for religious accommodations, such as religious books or texts and meetings with leaders from inmates' faith, are most always granted. About half of the requests for specific religious diets and religious items or clothing usually are granted but special hairstyles or grooming is mostly denied.

Some chaplains regarded some requests as bogus or extreme, such as seeking raw meat for a Voodoo ritual, said one chaplain. Others said some so-called religious groups were a cover for non religious activities, such as gangs that claim to be religious and promote violence.


The study said "official statistics on the religious affiliation of the state prison population generally are not publicly available. Thus, the Pew Forum survey provides a unique look — based on the chaplains' own estimates — at the relative size and growth of religious groups behind bars."

A majority of chaplains said that attempts by inmates to convert other inmates are either very common (31 percent) or somewhat common (43 percent).

It doesn't always work, but the chaplains either said a lot of inmates change religions (26 percent) or some change religion (51 percent).

Among the chaplains that reported at least some religious switching, about half said that the number of Muslims is growing, followed closely by Protestant Christians and pagan and Earth-based religions.

Chaplains said nine out of the 12 religious groups considered have remained relatively stable in size. But there was shrinkage of 20 percent among Catholics and 17 percent among the unaffiliated.

Other religious groups remaining relatively stable were those practicing Native American spirituality, Jews, Buddhists, Mormons, Hindus, Orthodox Christians and other non-Christians.

The chaplains estimated that two-thirds of the inmates in the prisons where they worked were Christians and 5 to 9 percent were Muslim, followed by other groups.

However, the researchers cautioned: "Chaplains' perspectives on the religious makeup of inmates may reflect a number of different influences, including their degree of exposure to various groups in the course of their work.

"But even if the chaplains interviewed had perfect information about the relative distribution of religious groups among inmates in the prisons where they work, the findings would not be weighted in proportion to the size of the overall U.S. prison population. As a result, they would not provide an accurate count of religious affiliation in the U.S. prison population."

"It is rare that a person gets up in the morning and looks forward to going to work, but I do."

Matthew Mason, a chaplain at Crossroads Correctional Center in Cameron, Mo.


State prisons were surveyed about religion by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life between Sept. 21 and Dec. 23.

Of 1,474 chaplains/religious services coordinators who were sent web and paper questionnaires, 730 returned them, a rate of nearly 50 percent.

For more about the survey and to read more segments of the study, go to pewforum.org .

(c)2012 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.) Visit The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.) at www.kansascity.com Distributed by MCT Information Services

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