Study offers view of religious life behind prison walls

c. 2012 Religion News Service
WASHINGTON (RNS) Behind high prison walls and rolls of barbed wire, Muslim
and pagan inmates are most likely to have extreme religious views and be
the least assisted by religious volunteers.

Most prisoners who want religious books will get them, but wearing a beard
is far less likely to be permitted. And the majority of chaplains who
serve convicted murderers, thieves and other criminals are satisfied with their

Those and other findings form a snapshot of religious life behind bars in a
report that was released Thursday (March 22) by the Pew Forum on Religion
& Public Life, based on the perceptions of 730 chaplains who serve in the
nation's state prison systems.

As the U.S. has grown more religiously diverse, the prison population has,
too, but often in different directions, said Stephanie Boddie, a senior
researcher on the study.

"The unaffiliated is growing in the general population but it's decreasing
in the prison population," said Boddie, who noted the Pew findings are
based on the impressions of chaplains rather than official prison statistics.
"We also have 1 percent of Muslims in the general population but in some
of the prisons we had as high as 20 percent, and in some prisons they had 0

The majority of chaplains reported a significant amount of "religious
switching," and said it's common for inmates to try to convert other prisoners.
But Cary Funk, another senior researcher with the study, said chaplains
report that some of those conversions may be short-lived.

"Inmates can be motivated by things that on the outside we might take for
granted but on the inside have a lot more value -- things like special
food, special holidays," she said. "One chaplain put it that they were
privilege-based conversions not religious-based conversions."

While a sizable minority of chaplains says religious extremism is common
among prisoners, only 4 percent said it "almost always" poses a threat to
prison security. Muslim chaplains were less likely to say they had
encountered widespread religious extremism.

Boddie said generally the chaplains were not dealing with what might
usually be considered "extremism" by people outside prison walls.

"They don't talk as much about some of the ways that possibly are more
commonly thought of in terms of anti-government or anti-authority and
violence," she said.

The chaplains described extremism as intolerance of racial or social
groups, religious exclusivity and particular requests for accommodation, such as
asking for raw meat for a Voodoo ritual. Close to half said their prisons
have consulted with experts about suspected religious extremism or provided
extra supervision for religious meetings.

The vast majority of chaplains are Christian and they are mostly white,
male, middle-aged and conservative in their theological and political
beliefs. The chaplains often reported that they had more Christian volunteers than
necessary but lacked Muslim, pagan and Native American volunteers.

Tom O'Connor, a former Oregon prison chaplain who runs the company
Transforming Corrections, said more trained volunteers are needed to help move
inmates away from anti-social behavior. But he said he was heartened to learn
that researchers found that Muslim chaplains constituted 7 percent of the
respondents, and cited a program at Hartford Seminary that is training new

"More and more, Islam is producing chaplains in America because we
desperately do need more of them," said O'Connor, who advised researchers on the

But O'Connor cautioned against lumping too many diverse beliefs together
when considering what might be extreme behavior. In the Pew report, Muslims
included the Nation of Islam, a movement founded on black pride and racial
separation, and pagan and earth-based religions included Asatru, which is
sometimes associated with white supremacists.

"I've never come across a racially superior-inclined Wiccan," he said.

Prisoner requests for religious accommodation reflect a range of faiths.
Chaplains said about half of the requests tend to be granted for special
religious diets and sacred items such as turbans, crucifixes and eagle

Despite the lack of certain kinds of volunteers and the time spent on
paperwork rather than religious services, about two-thirds of chaplains report
high job satisfaction.

But they say work needs to be done. Hardly any think the prison system is
doing an excellent job on preparing prisoners to re-enter society. And there
is near consensus among the chaplains that first-time nonviolent offenders
should be sentenced to community service or mandatory drug counseling
instead of prison terms.

The survey was based on a response rate of about 50 percent from 1,474
chaplains who were asked to complete Web or paper questionnaires last year,
and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.6 percentage points.

Adelle M. Banks

Adelle M. Banks is a national reporter for Religion News Service.

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