March 22, 2012

Religion in Prisons – A 50-State Survey of Prison Chaplains

From the perspective of the nation’s professional prison chaplains, America’s state penitentiaries are a bustle of religious activity. More than seven-in-ten (73%) state prison chaplains say that efforts by inmates to proselytize or convert other inmates are either very common (31%) or somewhat common (43%). About three-quarters of the chaplains say that a lot (26%) or some (51%) religious switching occurs among inmates in the prisons where they work. Many chaplains report growth from religious switching in the numbers of Muslims and Protestant Christians, in particular.

Overwhelmingly, state prison chaplains consider religious counseling and other religion-based programming an important aspect of rehabilitating prisoners. Nearly three-quarters of the chaplains (73%), for example, say they consider access to religion-related programs in prison to be “absolutely critical” to successful rehabilitation of inmates. And 78% say they consider support from religious groups after inmates are released from prison to be absolutely critical to inmates’ successful rehabilitation and re-entry into society. Among chaplains working in prisons that have religion-related rehabilitation or re-entry programs, more than half (57%) say the quality of such programs has improved over the last three years and six-in-ten (61%) say participation in such programs has gone up.

At the same time, a sizable minority of chaplains say that religious extremism is either very common (12%) or somewhat common (29%) among inmates. Religious extremism is reported by the chaplains as especially common among Muslim inmates (including followers of the Nation of Islam and the Moorish Science Temple of America) and, to a substantial but lesser degree, among followers of pagan or earth-based religions such as Odinism and various forms of Wicca. (See Glossary.) An overwhelming majority of chaplains, however, report that religious extremism seldom poses a threat to the security of the facility in which they work, with only 4% of chaplains saying religious extremism among inmates “almost always” poses a threat to prison security and an additional 19% saying it “sometimes” poses a threat.

These are among the key findings of a survey of prison chaplains in all 50 states by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life. The survey was conducted from Sept. 21 to Dec. 23, 2011, using Web and paper questionnaires. The Pew Forum attempted to contact all 1,474 professional chaplains working in state prisons across the country, and 730 chaplains returned completed questionnaires, a response rate of nearly 50%.

Little information is publicly available about the religious lives of the approximately 1.6 million inmates in the U.S. prison system, the vast majority of whom (87%) are under the jurisdiction of state correctional authorities.8 The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics routinely reports on several characteristics of the U.S. prison population, such as age, gender and racial/ethnic composition, but it does not usually report on the religious affiliation of inmates, and independent surveys of inmates rarely are permitted.9 Thus, the Pew Forum survey offers a rare window into the religious lives of inmates through the lens of prison chaplains.

In assessing that lens, it may be helpful to know some characteristics of the chaplains who responded to the survey. They are predominately male (85%), middle-aged (57 years old, on average), white (70%), Christian (85%, including a 44% plurality who are evangelical Protestants) and highly educated (62% with graduate degrees). They describe themselves as conservative on both social issues (53%) and political issues (55%). Most report having a lot of direct contact with inmates: Fully 90% say they have one-on-one contact with at least a quarter of all the inmates in the facility where they work, and two-thirds (66%) say that “personally leading worship services, religious instruction sessions or spiritual counseling sessions” is among the top three activities on which they spend the most time. About half have been on the job for more than a decade, and most report high job satisfaction.

Rehabilitation, Re-entry and Religion

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Most chaplains are upbeat about the prisons where they work. About six-in-ten (61%) of those surveyed say their state’s correctional system “works pretty well” and needs only minor changes, while a third (34%) say the system needs major changes and 5% say it needs to be completely re-built.

Asked to rate specific aspects of the system’s performance, chaplains are most positive about the maintenance of discipline. Nine out of 10 chaplains surveyed say the state correctional system where they work does either an excellent job (40%) or a good job (54%) of maintaining order and discipline in prisons. But they are less sanguine about efforts to rehabilitate inmates and prepare them for re-entry into the community. Only 8% say the system where they work is doing an excellent job of preparing inmates for reintegration into the community, while 37% say it is doing a good job and a majority say the system is only fair (37%) or poor (17%) at readying inmates to return to the wider society.

There is strong consensus among the chaplains surveyed about several elements that are important for successful rehabilitation and reintegration into society. These include services provided while in prison as well as support upon release. And, perhaps not surprisingly, chaplains put access to religion-related programs in this mix. More than seven-in-ten chaplains (73%) consider access to high-quality religion-related programs in prison to be “absolutely critical” for successful rehabilitation and re-entry, and an additional 23% say such programs are very important, though not critical.

About six-in-ten chaplains (62%) say that religion-related programs for rehabilitation and re-entry (such as faith-based job training or mentoring programs) are available in the prisons where they work. Most of these chaplains consider the religion-related programs to be thriving both in terms of usage and quality.

Among those working in a prison with a religion-related rehabilitation program, about six-in-ten (61%) say usage has increased over the past three years, 31% say usage has stayed the same and just 6% say usage has gone down. A majority of those working in a prison with a program of this sort also say that the quality of the religion-related rehabilitation programs has improved (57%), while 36% say the quality is about the same and 7% say the program’s quality has declined over the past three years.

Religious Extremism

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Since the 9/11 terrorist 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.10 The Pew Forum survey devotes several questions to the topic of religious extremism, probing the extent to which prison chaplains perceive it to be common and asking them to describe the kinds of extreme religious views they encounter behind bars.

A majority (58%) of state prison chaplains surveyed say that religious extremism is either not too common (42%) or not at all common (16%) in the facilities where they work, while 12% say that it is very common and 29% say it is somewhat common. At the same time, about three-quarters of the chaplains say that religious extremism poses a threat to the security of the facility either “not too often” (26%) or “rarely or almost never” (50%).

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A number of factors are likely to influence chaplains’ perceptions of religious extremism, of course, including the experiences of the chaplains in the facility where they work as well as their individual background and perspectives. For example, estimates of how common extreme religious views are tend to vary with the security level of the facility where chaplains work. About four-in-ten chaplains in maximum security (44%) and medium security facilities (42%) say religious extremism is very or somewhat common, compared with 32% among chaplains in minimum security facilities saying the same.

Views on the prevalence of religious extremism among inmates also tend to vary with the religious affiliation and race of the chaplains. Protestant chaplains are more likely than those of the Catholic or Muslim faith to say that religious extremism in the prisons is either very or somewhat common. This tendency is a bit stronger among white evangelical chaplains than it is among white mainline Protestants.

Analysis of these differences is constrained by the modest number of chaplains from some of these faith traditions who are in the survey. For example, 98 respondents are Catholic, and only 53 are Muslim. However, those who are Muslim appear less likely than other chaplains to perceive a lot of religious extremism among inmates. Just 23% of the Muslim chaplains say religious extremism is either very common or somewhat common in the prisons where they work, while 43% of Protestant chaplains take that view. Catholic chaplains fall in between, with 32% saying religious extremism is very or somewhat common in the facilities where they work.

The Pew Forum survey also asked chaplains to rate the prevalence of extremist views among inmates in each of 12 religious groups. (The chaplains were given the option of indicating that the facility in which they work has no inmates belonging to a particular faith. The figures shown here are based on those providing a response.) A majority of respondents to this question say that religious extremism is either very common (22%) or somewhat common (36%) among Muslim inmates (including followers of the Nation of Islam and the Moorish Science Temple of America).

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A sizable minority of the chaplains responding (39%) also say they encounter extremism among inmates who practice pagan or earth-based religions. Of those answering this question, about six-in-ten (61%) see such views as not too common or not at all common among pagan inmates.

Religious extremism is perceived as less prevalent among other groups of inmates. About a quarter (24%) of chaplains responding to this question say that religious extremism is very or somewhat common among Protestant inmates; 76% say extremism is not too or not at all common among Protestants in the prisons where they work.

About a fifth of chaplains say extremism is very or somewhat common among inmates practicing Native American spirituality (19%) and a host of “other non-Christian religions” (21%), such as the Rastafari movement, Santeria, Voodoo and others. (See Glossary.) In addition, 17% of chaplains answering the question say that extremism is very or somewhat common among Jewish inmates, and 14% say this about inmates with no religious preference. Fewer than one-in-ten of the chaplains answering say that religious extremism is very or somewhat common among inmates of other religious groups.

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To keep these assessments in perspective, it is important to realize that the religious groups vary in size. Extremism could be very common in a small religious group (such as practitioners of pagan and earth-based religions), but the overall prevalence of extremism in a prison might still be quite small.

It is also helpful to keep in mind that chaplains have differing opinions about what constitutes extremism. One chaplain noted, for example, that in his view “all true religion is extreme” and “therefore none is more ‘extreme’ than the other,” while another chaplain said it is important to differentiate between the mere “strangeness” of certain groups and those that are “threatening to the peace of others.”

To better understand what they mean by “extreme religious views,” the Pew Forum survey asked chaplains to explain, in their own words, the kinds of extremism they encounter. Chaplains offered a wide range of answers to this open-ended question, varying in length and detail. For purposes of analysis, their responses were categorized first in terms of key ideas or themes and, second, in terms of the specific religious groups they cite as espousing extreme views.

Many chaplains mentioned multiple themes, but among the most common was racism disguised as religious dogma. In total, 41% of the chaplains who answered the question referred to some form of racial intolerance or prejudice toward social groups. This includes expressions of racial superiority or supremacy by either black or white inmates (36%) as well as hostility toward gays and lesbians, negative views of women and intolerance toward sex offenders or other inmates based on the nature of their criminal offense.

An almost equal share of the chaplains who responded to the open-ended question about extremism (40%) mentioned instances of religious (as opposed to racial) intolerance. This includes expressions of religious exclusivity as well as attempts to intimidate or coerce others into particular beliefs. (Note that percentages do not add to 100% because multiple responses are allowed.)

A little more than a quarter of the chaplains’ descriptions of extreme views (28%) cited requests for special foods, clothing or rituals – even though, in response to a different question in the survey, many chaplains indicate that such requests for religious accommodation frequently are granted. Some chaplains expressed frustration over requests that they view as bogus or extreme, such as seeking raw meat for a Voodoo ritual or a religious diet consisting of goat’s milk, vegetables and oatmeal with sugar.

About a quarter of those responding described religious extremism in other ways, including the use by prisoners of religious groups as a “cover” for non-religious activities; espousing views that promote violence or rape; and creating new religions. One chaplain noted, for example, that “We have a great deal of difficulty with gang activity in our religious activities, and some gangs even claim to be religious in nature or support their beliefs through religious claims.”

Chaplains also mentioned a wide range of religious groups in connection with extreme views. Among those responding in their own words to the open-ended question about extremism, the most commonly mentioned group was Muslims (54%), including 21% who specifically cited the Nation of Islam. In addition, 34% mentioned Christian groups, including 7% who cited fundamentalist Christians or evangelical Protestants, 6% who mentioned Hebrew Israelites and 4% who specifically referred to the so-called Christian Identity movement.11 Other religions were also mentioned; 16% of the chaplains who answered the question mentioned pagan or earth-based religions, and 12% mentioned Satanism. (Note that percentages do not add to 100% because multiple responses were allowed on this open-ended question. See Glossary for brief definitions of smaller religious groups.)

Muslims, Protestants Seen as Growing Due to Switching

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A majority of chaplains surveyed report that the prison where they work has a formal system in place both for documenting the religious affiliation of inmates (84%) and for documenting changes in religious affiliation (76%). However, such records typically are for in-house use only. As previously noted, 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 say that attempts by inmates to convert or proselytize other inmates are either very common (31%) or somewhat common (43%), while 26% say such attempts are not too or not at all common.12

Of course, attempts at conversion or prosely-tizing do not necessarily succeed. Still, a majority of chaplains say that there is either “a lot” of religious switching (26%) or “some” switching among inmates (51%). About one-fifth (21%) say that switching occurs “not much” or not at all in the prisons where they work.

To get a sense of which religious groups are gaining the most converts, the Pew Forum survey asked chaplains to estimate whether the number of inmates in each of 12 religious groups is increasing, decreasing or staying at about the same level. Among chaplains who report that at least some switching occurs within the correctional facilities where they work, about half (51%) report that Muslims are growing in number, and 47% say the same about Protestant Christians. A sizable minority of chaplains answering this question also say that followers of pagan or earth-based religions are growing (34%).

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For nine of the 12 religious groups considered, however, a solid majority (61% or more) of chaplains answering the question report that the size of each group is stable. And for several religious groups, the chaplains are as likely, or even more likely, to report shrinkage as to report growth.

For example, one-in-five chaplains answering this question (20%) say that the number of practicing Catholics behind bars is shrinking due to switching, while 14% say the ranks of Catholics are growing. Similarly, 17% say that the number of inmates with no religious preference is shrinking, while 12% say the ranks of the unaffiliated are growing. And about one-in-ten chaplains report a decline in Mormons and Orthodox Christians due to switching, while only 3% say those religious minorities are growing behind bars.

Presence of Various Faith Groups

The relative size of each faith group within the prison population is difficult to gauge. The Pew Forum survey asked chaplains to estimate the approximate percentage of inmates in the prisons where they work who identify with each of 12 religious groups. It should be noted, however, that these findings cannot be used to reliably estimate the religious affiliation of the U.S. prison population. They provide only an impressionistic portrait of the religious environment in which chaplains work.

On average, the chaplains surveyed say that Christians as a whole make up about two-thirds of the inmate population in the facilities where they work. Protestants are seen, on average, as comprising 51% of the inmate population, Catholics 15% and other Christian groups less than 2%. The median estimate of the share of Protestants is 50%, meaning that half of the chaplains estimate that Protestants comprise more than 50% of the inmate population where they work, and half of the chaplains estimate the figure to be below that.

The chaplains’ responses also suggest that many other faith groups are represented in the prison population. On average, the chaplains surveyed say that Muslims make up 9% of the inmates in the prisons where they work, with half of the chaplains saying that Muslims comprise 5% or less of the inmate population and half saying that Muslim inmates make up more than 5% of the inmates where they work. On average, other non-Christian groups are perceived as considerably smaller in size.

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.

Religious Accommodation Requests

The diversity of faith groups in the inmate population underscores the challenges the prison system faces in meeting the religious needs of all inmates. The Pew Forum survey included several questions designed to probe the kinds of requests that inmates make for accommodation of their religious beliefs and practices, as well as the frequency with which they are granted.

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An overwhelming majority of chaplains who responded to these questions say that inmates’ requests for religious texts (82%) and for meetings with spiritual leaders of their faith (71%) are usually approved. And about half of chaplains say that requests for a special religious diet (53%) or for permission to have sacred items or religious clothing such as crucifixes, eagle feathers and turbans (51%) also are usually granted.

But one kind of request appears to be less routinely granted. Only about three-in-ten chaplains (28%) say that requests for special accommodations related to hair or grooming are usually approved in the prisons where they work, while 36% say such requests are usually denied and 36% say the decisions can go either way.

Need for Volunteers from Particular Faiths

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Another window into the religious diversity of the inmate population is what chaplains say about the number of volunteers who come into the prisons to help meet inmates’ religious needs. About seven-in-ten chaplains (69%) say there are some faith groups for which more volunteers are needed. The picture that clearly emerges is that non-Christian faiths have the greatest need for a larger pool of volunteers to work with inmates.

The religious group most commonly cited as being underserved by volunteers is Muslims, according to the chaplains surveyed. A total of 55% of chaplains say this, including 7% who specifically mention the Moorish Science Temple of America and 6% who mention the Nation of Islam as needing more volunteers. Other commonly named groups include pagan or earth-based religions such as Wicca, Odinism, Asatru and Druidism (35%) and Native American spirituality (32%). (See Glossary.) About one-in-five chaplains answering this question say that Christian groups lack enough volunteers (22%). The most commonly mentioned Christian group with too few volunteers is Catholics (10%).

By contrast, about a third of chaplains (32%) report that some faith groups have more volunteers than are needed to meet inmates’ spiritual needs. Among the chaplains who say this, the most commonly named groups are Protestants (net of 52%), and an additional 26% say “Christians” with no further specification. A total of 7% mentioned Catholics. No other religion was named by more than 10% of the chaplains responding.

What Chaplains Consider Central to their Role

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Chaplains fulfill a wide range of functions in state prisons. The Pew Forum survey listed 10 possible tasks and asked the chaplains to indicate which ones they perform in the course of their work. In addition, the chaplains were asked to rank the top three activities on which they spend the most time and, separately, which activities they personally see as most important.

Nearly all the chaplains (92%) say their work includes personally leading worship services, religious instruction and spiritual counseling sessions. Nearly all (93%) also say they administer or organize religious programs.

In terms of importance, 57% of the chaplains say that personally leading religious worship, instruction and counseling sessions is the single most important activity in which they engage. Yet only a third say this is the activity on which they spend the most time. By contrast, just 18% of chaplains say that administering religious programs is their most important function, yet 38% report that helping to organize such programs is the activity on which they spend the most time.

The survey also offered chaplains an opportunity to specify, in their own words, any other activities that take up a significant amount of their working day. One kind of activity dominated the responses to this open-ended question: paperwork and administrative tasks. Fully 45% of those responding cited administrative tasks, including 28% who specifically mentioned paperwork, reports, mail, correspondence or data entry.

Chaplains Themselves Largely Protestant, Evangelical

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The overwhelming majority of state prison chaplains (85%) identify themselves as Christians, and about seven-in-ten are Protestants (71%). Fully 44% of all the chaplains surveyed say their denomination is part of the evangelical Protestant tradition, while 15% belong to a mainline Protestant tradition and 7% say they are associated with the historically black Protestant tradition.13 Catholics make up 13% of the chaplains. The remainder either belong to non-Christian traditions (including 7% who are Muslim and 3% who are Jewish) or did not specify a religious preference.

Most chaplains also describe themselves as holding theologically conservative views. Six-in-ten (60%) say their religion should “preserve its traditional beliefs and practices,” while only 2% say it should “adopt modern beliefs and practices.” Three-in-ten (30%) take a middle stance, saying their religious tradition should “make some adjustments to traditional beliefs and practices in light of modern beliefs and practices.” A majority of chaplains describe their political as well as their social views as either conservative or very conservative.

The chaplains surveyed are overwhelmingly male (85%) and middle-aged (82% are 50 or older). A majority are white (70%), 18% are black, 5% are Hispanic, 5% are Asian or other and 2% did not specify their racial or ethnic background.14 They are also a well-educated group, with about six-in-ten (62%) holding either a master’s or doctoral graduate degree and an additional 21% holding a bachelor’s degree. A majority of the state prison chaplains (56%) have a graduate degree in religion or a ministry-related field, and about half have experience working as a chaplain for some other kind of institution, such as a hospital or the military (49%).

Other key findings from the survey include:

  • About two-thirds (64%) of chaplains say they are very satisfied with their job, and an additional 30% are somewhat satisfied. Only 6% are very or somewhat dissatisfied.
  • Among the chaplains who express an opinion on the performance of volunteers, most favorably assess how volunteers lead worship services or other religious rituals; more than nine-in-ten rate volunteers as excellent (42%) or good (50%) leaders of worship services, and more than eight-in-ten say volunteers are excellent (33%) or good (52%) at running prayer and meditation groups.
  • But chaplains are less positive about volunteers as mentors for inmates. About a third of the chaplains who offer an opinion say that volunteers do only a fair (26%) or poor (8%) job of mentoring inmates.
  • About half (49%) of the chaplains say they have heard about the Second Chance Act, which provides federal funding for re-entry services in state prisons and local jails as well as juvenile facilities. Among this group, 57% say the federal legislation has been either very effective (8%) or somewhat effective (50%) in improving re-entry services and promoting the successful return of inmates to their communities, while a third (33%) say it has been not too effective or not at all effective.
  • There is near consensus among chaplains on several ways to cut prison costs. Nearly all the chaplains surveyed either favor (46%) or strongly favor (46%) dealing with non-violent, first-time offenders through alternative sentencing (such as community service or mandatory substance-abuse counseling) rather than prison terms. Nearly all the chaplains also favor (57%) or strongly favor (35%) allowing inmates to earn early release based on good behavior and completion of rehabilitation programs. On the other hand, there is near-unanimity among chaplains against one idea: 94% oppose cutting correctional staff and programs.

About the Survey

This survey was conducted between Sept. 21 and Dec. 23, 2011, among professional chaplains and religious services coordinators working in state prisons (both titles are used in state prisons, and they are treated as interchangeable in this report). Correctional authorities in all 50 states granted permission for the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life to contact state prison chaplains and request their voluntary participation in the survey. The state departments of corrections also provided email addresses or other contact information solely for the purposes of this survey, which was endorsed by the American Correctional Chaplains Association. Of 1,474 chaplains who were sent Web and paper questionnaires, 730 returned completed questionnaires, a response rate of nearly 50%.

Roadmap to the Report

The remainder of this report is divided into five parts. The next section provides a religious and socio-demographic profile of state prison chaplains. It is followed by a look at what chaplains do in the course of their work and by their assessments of religious volunteers. The fourth section presents chaplains’ perspectives on the religious lives of inmates, including proselytizing, religious switching and concerns about extremism. The final section summarizes chaplains’ views of the correctional system. Details about how the survey was conducted can be found in Appendix A (Methodology). Appendix B (Topline PDF) contains the full wording of the questionnaire and a summary of results. Appendix C provides background statistics on the state and federal prison system, Appendix D is a glossary of terms and Appendix E is a list of advisers.


Footnotes:

8 For more details, see Appendix C: The State and Federal Correctional System. (return to text)

9 Prisoners are rarely allowed to participate in research studies of any kind, partly because of prior abuses of their involuntary availability for such studies. To be permitted, studies usually must demonstrate a clear cost-benefit calculation in the prisoners’ favor, such as the benefit from receiving a specific medical treatment. The possible “psychic rewards” to inmates of being able to express their opinions and describe their experiences on a survey questionnaire, or the value of the information to the public, generally are not considered sufficient by correctional authorities to justify a survey of inmates. (return to text)

10 A 2010 article in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, for example, argued that “Prisons literally provide a captive audience of disaffected young men easily influenced by charismatic extremist leaders” and that “The shortage of qualified religious providers in prisons heightens the threat of inmate radicalization.” See Dennis A. Ballas, “Prisoner Radicalization,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, October 2010. (return to text)

11 The classification of some of these groups is difficult. Hebrew Israelites, also known as Black Hebrew Israelites and Black Hebrews, are categorized in this report as a Christian group because, historically, they arose from U.S. Christian denominations. It should be noted, however, that Hebrew Israelites often identify themselves as Jews and that some prison chaplains may view them as Jews rather than as Christians. In addition, some chaplains indicated that they view Hebrew Israelites and the Christian Identity movement as racist groups rather than as bona fide religious groups. (return to text)

12 The survey asks, “And in your opinion how common is it, if at all, for inmates to attempt to convert or proselytize other inmates?” without defining either term. The American Correctional Chaplains Association, however, distinguishes between legitimate sharing of faith and proselytizing, which it defines as “unwanted or forceful” attempts at conversion. (return to text)

13 These results are based on chaplains’ self-identification of their particular denomination as evangelical, mainline or historically black Protestant. The figures are based on all chaplains surveyed, although the denominational breakdown question was asked only of Protestant chaplains. (return to text)

14 By contrast, a majority of inmates in U.S. prisons are black (38%) or Hispanic (22%), according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. For more information on the demographic characteristics of the inmate population, see Appendix C: The State and Federal Correctional System. (return to text)

Photo Credit: © Illustration Works/Corbis

Cite this publication: Joseph Liu. “Religion in Prisons – A 50-State Survey of Prison Chaplains.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (March 22, 2012) http://www.pewforum.org/2012/03/22/prison-chaplains-exec/, accessed on July 22, 2014.