Do non-Christian prisoners get enough spiritual support?

Many federal inmates identify as members of non-Christian faiths — and some prison chaplains say that more work needs to be done to meet their needs 
By Clara Pasieka - Published on Mar 03, 2020
Chaplaincy services in the federal system are provided via a company called Bridges of Canada. (Lars Hagberg/CP)

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“Don’t get angry. Don’t get reactive. Just breathe through it, and you’ll find that it goes away.” That’s the kind of thing Buddhist chaplain Taigen-Ian Henderson tells inmates inside some of Ontario’s federal prisons. He recalls one inmate, a dangerous offender, who “couldn’t sit still for five minutes”; after learning meditation practices, “he changed dramatically,” Henderson says, even donating money to fund the purchase of meditation mats. “The transformation was remarkable.”

Historically Catholic or Protestant, federal-prison chaplains in Ontario have come to represent a more diverse range of beliefs over the years, reflecting an inmate population in which most still identify as having a religion but just under half identify as Christian. Some prison chaplains, though, say that, in practice, more work needs to be done to meet the spiritual needs of federal-institution prisoners of minority faiths.

Chaplains in Canadian federal prisons fall into two camps: site-based chaplains, who are typically dedicated to a specific prison full-time, and demographic chaplains or tradition-specific chaplains, who rotate and may spend only a few hours each month at a given facility. Correctional Service Canada tells TVO.org via email that this model provides “the flexibility to respond to the current and future needs for religious and spiritual services for either large or small numbers of offenders.”

Chaplaincy services were privatized in March 2013. Today, they’re provided by Bridges of Canada, a subsidiary of the U.S. company Bridges of America. The contract, worth up to $38 million, was recently extended until March 31, 2021; after that, the company could be eligible for its last of five one-year renewals. (Bridges of Canada did not respond to TVO.org’s request for comment.)

All chaplains provide spiritual care. Site chaplains, the vast majority of whom are Christian, hold power over such things as issuing passes to prisoners to attend religious activities and how chapel space is booked. Demographic chaplains provide services to prisoners of minority faiths and can help them get access to specific religious objects such as candles and prayer mats. Some critics argue that this structure creates a disparity in terms of who can access spiritual care.

One chaplain, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says it can feel as if this American-rooted model, with a Christian non-denominational foundation, doesn’t quite fit in the Canadian pluralistic context. Even though Bridges of Canada seems to be trying, they say, the language the company uses often doesn’t apply to all faiths — for example, it can imply the existence of one deity.

Orev Reena Katz, a Jewish chaplain who works in the federal prison system, says that providing diverse chaplaincy options to inmates is important. “All the usual systemic oppression that people experience outside of incarceration — racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia — are all exacerbated inside prison walls,” she says. “In order to not only survive but thrive, to be resilient, to move toward making better choices in their lives, they need support, and that support has historically come from only one source in the prison: the chaplain.”

Kate Johnson, a Quaker and a former federal prison chaplain, left the system before it was privatized — in part because of concerns about transparency. She says that access to spiritual care is often worse for those of minority faiths who are incarcerated in smaller communities “far from a major city centre,” because that can pose “a problem for [demographic] chaplains being able to serve these inmates.” Demographic chaplains may cover a vast area. One, for example, was responsible for covering much of southern Ontario. Groups with smaller numbers generally don’t get to see chaplains of their own faith as often as do those who share the faith of the site chaplain.

Johnson says that challenges in accessing minority spiritual care can create future problems with recidivism. A strong relationship with someone like a chaplain while inside has been proven to be “a risk-reducing factor,” she says. “It’s about what’s best for them, society, and victims.”

(A spokesperson for CSC tells TVO.org via email that the federal agency is “currently engaging in a feasibility study to determine the most efficient and effective service-provision model that will ensure offenders have access to spiritual services to support their faith practice.”)

Change is around the corner for all federal prison chaplains. Both site chaplains and demographic chaplains have recently become members of the United Steelworkers union and have started negotiating their first contract. “I feel really hopeful about our unionization process,” says Katz. “I feel like we're moving toward understanding our work in new ways, being vocal and confident about our employment issues, reaching out to Corrections Services Canada and chaplains.”

While unionization will affect site and demographic chaplains alike, one demographic chaplain says that their colleagues, some of whom describe their work as isolating and their hours and contracts as precarious, have a lot to gain. Another states that the unionization process has facilitated conversations among chaplains about the importance of tradition-specific options in spiritual care.

Many chaplains say that they have maintained meaningful connections with prisoners after they have been released, or helped them connect with faith communities in other cities. Katz recalls helping an inmate grieve the death of his father while the inmate was incarcerated in a federal institution and teaching him the Mourner’s Kaddish. “Grief and loss are a huge spiritual and emotional challenge for anyone who's incarcerated because it's such an isolating experience,” she says. “So we worked together for many years, and he's actually out now and made amazing improvements in his behaviour and his outlook and his mental health, and that was a really gratifying process for us both.”

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