March 22, 2012

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

The Role of Religious Volunteers

Many state prisons make extensive use of volunteers from houses of worship or other religious organizations to help meet the spiritual needs of inmates. A majority of chaplains say that more volunteers are needed, particularly for inmates who belong to minority faiths such as Islam, Wicca and Native American spirituality. About a third of the chaplains surveyed also say that volunteers from some religious groups are overabundant. In particular, they tend to cite Protestant groups as providing more volunteers than necessary to meet the religious needs of inmates. Generally speaking, the prison chaplains give religious volunteers high marks for the way they lead worship services, education classes and prayer groups but somewhat lower marks for mentoring inmates and their children.

Supply of Volunteers: Too Few or Too Many?

Most prison chaplains say there are too few religious volunteers to meet the needs of all inmates. About seven-in-ten prison chaplains surveyed (69%) say there are some religious groups for which there are too few volunteers in the prisons where they work.

Among those expressing this view, 55% say that more Muslim volunteers are needed. (This figure includes 7% specifically mentioning the Moorish Science Temple of America and 6% mentioning the Nation of Islam.) Other commonly named groups for which more volunteers are needed include pagan or earth-based religions, such as Wicca, Odinism, Asatru and Druidism (35%), and Native American spirituality (32%). (Note that percentages do not add to 100% because multiple responses were allowed. See Glossary for brief definitions of some smaller religious groups.)

At the same time, about a third of prison chaplains (32%) say some religious groups provide more volunteers than necessary to meet the religious needs of inmates. Among the chaplains who say this, Protestants are the most commonly named group (net of 52%); an additional 26% mentioned “Christians” with no further specification. A total of 7% mentioned Catholics. No other religion was named by more than 10% of the chaplains responding.

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How are Religious Volunteers Performing?

The Pew Forum survey asked chaplains to rate the performance of religious volunteers at six specific tasks. Respondents also had the option of saying that volunteers did not perform some of those tasks in the prisons where they work. For example, two-thirds of the chaplains (68%) report that religious volunteers do not mentor the children of inmates, and about half (46%) say that volunteers do not provide food, clothing or holiday gifts for the families of inmates.

Among the chaplains who express an opinion on the performance of volunteers, most favorably assess how volunteers lead worship services or other religious rituals; 42% rate volunteers as excellent leaders of worship services, 50% say volunteers do a good job at this and only 7% rate volunteers as fair or poor at leading worship services. A majority of those with an opinion also say that religious volunteers do an excellent job (35%) or a good job (50%) leading religious education classes. A similar proportion say volunteers are excellent (33%) or good (52%) at running prayer or meditation groups.

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Volunteers receive more mixed reviews for their efforts at mentoring inmates. Of the chaplains offering an opinion, two-thirds say volunteers make excellent (23%) or good (43%) mentors for inmates, but a third rate them as only fair (26%) or poor (8%). In recent years, federal and state authorities also have encouraged mentoring programs for the children of inmates. But, as previously noted, many chaplains say that in the prisons where they work, religious volunteers are not involved in mentoring inmates’ children. And of the chaplains who offer an opinion, only about a third say that religious volunteers do an excellent job (11%) or a good job (21%) of mentoring inmates’ children, while about two-thirds say they do either a fair (38%) or poor job (30%).

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