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New survey of prison chaplains shines light on religious life in jail

Published: Sunday, Aug. 2 2015 8:29 a.m. MDT

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Four out of 10 state prison chaplains say religious extremism is somewhat or very common in the correctional facilities where they work, according to a survey released today by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Three-quarters of the chaplains who responded to the survey said converting from one religion to another was somewhat or very common among inmates. Muslims, Protestants and pagan or earth-based religions were the groups most commonly cited as growing.

"You see a more visible presence (in prisons) for what in the general public would be very small religious groups," said lead researcher Stephanie Boddie of the growth of Muslim and pagan practitioners.

The new research, released today, highlights the difference between faith lived in the general public and faith lived behind bars. According to the researchers, the findings provide rare insight into the religious lives of America's inmates, as well as the chaplains who serve them.

The Pew Forum collected data from 730 chaplains working in state correctional facilities in all 50 states. The survey, "Religion in Prisons: A 50-State Survey of Prison Chaplains," provides a unique opportunity to further understand the lives of chaplains, who "really sit at the intersection" of two uniquely American phenomena, said lead researcher Cary Funk.

The United States is both, according to Funk, "the most religious of industrial democracies," and the country with the highest incarceration rates per capita. "We thought there would be a lot of public interest in religion behind bars," she said.

"There is so little information about the religious lives of inmates" available to the public, Boddie said.

The survey more than a year to compile. It also sought to provide insight into questions that have infiltrated recent public concerns, such as former inmates' recidivism, the state of the prison system and especially, the possibility of religious extremism blossoming within prisons.

Religious extremism in prisons

A majority of the state prison chaplains surveyed said religious extremism is not too common or not at all common in their facilities. However, what researchers called "a sizable minority" — 41 percent — of chaplains surveyed said religious extremism is somewhat or very common. And more chaplains working in maximum or medium security facilities said extremism was very or somewhat common than those working in minimum security prisons.

Chaplains were also asked to break down the presence of extremism within 12 different religious groups. Researchers found 57 percent of respondents said extremism was very or somewhat common, which for the survey's purposes included followers of the Nation of Islam and the Moorish Science Temple of America. Thirty-nine percent of chaplains who responded said extremism was also somewhat or very common in pagan or earth-based religions.

The findings, however, did not relate to safety. Three-quarters of state chaplains said religious extremism threatened prison security "not too often" (26 percent) or "almost never" (50 percent).

And in fact, the term 'extremism' was defined in a variety of ways by the respondents, who were asked to explain what "extreme religious views" meant in their own words.

Two of the most common answers were espoused racial supremacy and intolerance of other religions, under the guise of religious dogma. A quarter of the descriptions of extremism talked about prisoners using religious groups as a front for non-religious practices, like gang activity or promoting violence or rape.

But another quarter of chaplains who used their own words referred to inmates' requests for special practices, clothing or food. "Some chaplains expressed frustration over requests that they view was bogus or extreme," the survey noted, "such as seeking raw meat for a Voodoo ritual or a religious diet consisting of goat's milk, vegetables and oatmeal with sugar."

Who are the chaplains?

Profiles of the chaplains themselves, the researchers pointed out, could affect their perceptions of extreme religious views. The majority of chaplains surveyed are white, male and Christian. They also tend to be highly educated and conservative on social issues, political issues and their own theology.

"Chaplains' judgment about how often they're encountering extreme views…(is) subject to all kinds of perceptions," Boddie said. Funk added that the public may be surprised by the chaplains' definitions of religious extremism, because the inmates' practices don't necessarily reflect the anti-government sentiment most commonly associated with extremism in a post-Sept. 11 world.

As for the respondents' own religious views, seven out of 10 chaplains said they were Protestant, and 44 percent overall professed a commitment to evangelical Protestantism. Fifteen percent of chaplains were part of a mainline Protestant tradition and 7 percent associated with a historically black Protestant tradition. Catholic chaplains made up 13 percent of total respondents, Muslim chaplains claimed 7 percent and Jewish chaplains 3 percent.

Instances of perceived inmate religious extremism varies according to chaplain affiliation. For example, chaplains who identified Protestant were more likely to find extreme religious views somewhat or very common in their facilities than either Muslim or Catholic chaplains.

Conversion behind bars

"Religion in Prisons" also asked chaplains about the rates of conversion, or "switching," between incarcerated religious groups.

About three-quarters of respondents said attempts to proselytize or convert between inmates are either somewhat or very common. A slightly higher percentage — 77 percent total — of state chaplains reported seeing "a lot" or "some" religion switching. According to the chaplains, three groups were growing due to conversion: Muslims (reported by about half of respondents), Protestants (47 percent of respondents) and Pagan/earth-based religions (34 percent, another sizable minority).

As with the issue of religious extremism, the survey's open-ended questions to chaplains teased out nuances of the findings on conversion. Some respondents, for example, questioned the depth of inmates' conversions.

"You cannot draw any valid conclusions regarding religion in prisons by examining religion changes in offenders," one chaplain wrote. "These decisions are primarily privilege-based and not religiously based in my experience."

"It's not always clear how long-lived that conversion is," said Boddie, noting that many chaplains said inmates often switched religions in order to gain special accommodations or food. "These freedoms that seem small" in the outside world, Boddie said, could be deemed much more important in prison. In other studies of religious conversion in the general public, she noted, motivations appear significantly different.

The general public, significantly, also looks quite different in demographic makeup than prisons do. The growing numbers of Muslims and especially Pagan or earth-based converts in correctional facilities are not at all parallel to their presence in mainstream America, where they exist only as a tiny minority.

The role of prison chaplains

Respondents to the survey were asked about themselves as well as their inmates, revealing a generally satisfied but not apathetic group and providing broader insight into the prison system as a whole.

More than six out of 10 chaplains said they are very satisfied with their jobs, and three in 10 reported being somewhat satisfied. Only 6 percent of respondents showed dissatisfaction.

Some frustration was evident in the survey's queries over a perceived discrepancy between which chaplain duties were most important versus which duties were most time-consuming.

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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