Navigate this page:
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.
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.
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.
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%.
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
Thus, the Pew Forum survey offers a rare window into the religious lives of
inmates through the lens of prison chaplains.
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.
Re-entry and Religion
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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%).
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.
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
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.)
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.”
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
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.
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
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.
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%).
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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%).
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
What Chaplains Consider
Central to their Role
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
- 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
- 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
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
Roadmap to the Report
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.
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