Movies and TV portray hardened criminals cursing God and everyone else.
In reality, many inmates worship God and practice their faith behind bars.
A recent 50-state survey of chaplains offered a rare look at the worshippers behind bars, with the questions asked by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life in Washington, D.C.
The study said state prisons hold the bulk of the country’s convicts (1.4 million), but little has been released to the public on religion in these institutions.
Here are some of the major findings:
Role of chaplains
Chaplains in state prisons fulfill a range of functions.
Nearly all said they lead worship services, perform religious instruction, do spiritual counseling and organize religious programs. Fifty-seven percent considered the first three their most important functions, but only a third said this is where they spend most of their time.
Thirty-eight percent said most of their time is spent organizing religious programs, and 45 percent said they spend a significant amount of time on paperwork and administrative tasks.
The chaplains are overwhelmingly Christian (mainly Protestant), male and middle-aged. They also are well-educated, with 62 percent having advanced degrees.
And most like their jobs. Two-thirds said they were very satisfied, and only 6 percent were very or somewhat dissatisfied.
“It is rare that a person gets up in the morning and looks forward to going to work, but I do,” said Matthew Mason, a chaplain at Crossroads Correctional Center in Cameron, Mo.
Rehabilitation and re-entry
If there seems to be one essential, but challenging, aspect of most prison religion programs, it is in the area of rehabilitating inmates and preparing them for re-entry into society.
More than 7 in 10 chaplains considered access to high-quality religion-related programs in prison to be “absolutely critical” to successful rehabilitation and support from religious groups after inmates are released to be absolutely critical to their successful rehabilitation and re-entry.
Fifty-seven percent of chaplains who work in prisons that have rehabilitation or re-entry programs said the quality of the programs has improved in the last three years, and 61 percent said participation has increased.
“I feel that the religious services and programming that are offered here [Crossroads] are of high quality,” Mason said. “We have worked very hard to assemble a good group of volunteers who come inside the institution and minister to the offender population.”
The study gives considerable attention to the topic of religious extremism in prisons.
The researchers explained: “Since the 9/11 terrorism attacks, religious extremism has been a topic of high public interest in the United States. Some experts specifically have raised concerns that prisons could be a breeding ground for home-grown terrorists and have suggested that prison chaplains and other prison administrators need to monitor religious activity more closely.”
Estimates of how common extreme religious views are tend to vary with the security level of the facility and the chaplain’s background.
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 poses 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 nonreligious 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 9 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 5-9 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.”
Nearly 50 percent answered
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.
Distributed by MCT Information Services