What Prison Chaplains Do … and What They Think They Should Do
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role of prison chaplains is to meet the religious needs of inmates. But the
specific activities of prison chaplains vary from state to state and facility
to facility. Most chaplains report that they perform a wide range of functions —
from administering religious programs, to training volunteers, to advising
other prison staff members. In the view of many chaplains, however, their most
important role is to personally lead religious services, provide religious
education and counsel inmates. Some seem to chafe under the burden of paperwork
and administrative duties. But, on the whole, they express high levels of job
Pew Forum survey asked the chaplains which of 10 possible functions they
perform as part of their work. The chaplains could indicate that they perform
multiple functions, and virtually all of them did so. Indeed, more than
nine-in-ten say they do each of the following: administer religious programs
(93%), work with external faith-based and community organizations (92%),
personally lead worship services, religious instruction or spiritual counseling
(92%), advise correctional staff on religious issues and related policies (92%),
and supervise or train volunteers (91%).
A majority of chaplains also say they provide
support and counseling for correctional staff (85%), supervise inmates to help
maintain security (78%) and facilitate interfaith dialogue among inmates or staff (74%).
substantial minority (42%) of chaplains say they administer educational or
other secular rehabilitation services as part of their job. And a third (33%)
say that following up with inmates after release is among their duties.
An open-ended question on the survey asked chaplains to
list any other activities on which they spend “a significant amount of time” on
the job. One response was particularly common: paperwork. Among those offering
a response, 45% mentioned administrative tasks such as completing paperwork or
processing religious accommodation requests. Other frequent responses include
communication with family members of inmates and to inmates regarding family
news (cited by 18% of respondents to the open-ended question), pastoral counseling (17%) and recruiting and vetting volunteers
and in-kind donations (16%).
Activities Chaplains Spend the
Most Time On
to rank the top three activities on which they spend the most time, the most
common response from chaplains was serving as an administrator helping to
organize religious programs. Nearly seven-in-ten chaplains rank this among
their top three activities on the job (69%), including 38% who say it is the
activity on which they spend the most time. About the same portion (66%)
reports that personally leading worship services, religious instruction or spiritual
counseling sessions is among their top three activities, including 33% who say it
is how they spend the most time.
activities are less central to the chaplains as a whole. About one-third of
chaplains (32%) say that supervising or training volunteers is among the top
three activities they perform. About a quarter (24%) rank supervising inmates
in their top three activities, and about a fifth (19%) consider advising
correctional staff on religious issues one of their top three activities.
than one-in-ten say that providing counseling for staff, administering secular
rehabilitation services, facilitating interfaith dialogue among inmates or
staff, and following up with inmates after release are each among the top three uses of their time on the job.
Most Important Roles
activities do not always match up with priorities for the job. The Pew Forum
survey also asked each chaplain to rank the top three activities that, from his
or her point of view, are most important. One activity stands out: personally leading
worship services, religious instruction sessions or spiritual counseling
sessions. About three-quarters of the chaplains surveyed (75%) consider this to
be among their most important functions, including 57% who ranked it as their No.
A majority of chaplains (60%) also view the
administration of religious programs as one of the three most important
activities they perform; 18% consider it their most important activity.
Other activities were less likely to be seen as high
priorities. A third of chaplains (34%) say that supervising or training
volunteers is among their three most important duties. About a quarter (24%)
say that advising correctional staff on religious issues and related policies
is one of their top priorities; a similar portion (22%) says the same about
working with external faith-based organizations.
some concerns about paperwork and some mismatch between what they think is most
important and how they spend their time on the job, the chaplains surveyed
report high levels of job satisfaction. Six-in-ten say they are very satisfied
(64%) and three-in-ten (30%) are somewhat satisfied, while just 6% say they are
very or somewhat dissatisfied.
Photo Credit: © Illustration Works/Corbis