Effort to eliminate prison chaplains met with criticism
Posted by faithandthelaw on March 7, 2011
“Chaplaincy is the heart and soul of the prison system,” said Rabbi Dovid Goldstein, who oversees services and other programs for Jewish prisoners. “A body without a soul is a piece of dead meat.”
Goldstein testified before the Senate Finance Committee last week, part of the outcry after the proposed budget in the House of Representatives killed the program to help address a shortfall of at least $15 billion. The Senate version would cut but not abolish the program.
Even prisoners have weighed in.
“Our chapel classes and chaplains are vital … in our recovery and rehabilitation of sin and bad choices,” said a letter signed by 30 female inmates at the Plane State Jail in Dayton. “I fear the end result if this were to happen.”
State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston and chairman of the criminal justice committee, suggested it will come down to money.
“I’d rather not cut the chaplains,” he said. “But if you’ve got to choose between chaplains and corrections officers, you don’t have much choice.”
Ultimately, he said, a compromise may be possible.
The threat to prison chaplains is only one issue on the religious agenda during the legislative session.
Other issues of faith
Some groups support legislation to restrict abortion services, including a proposal to require women to view a sonogram before having an abortion. Most are working together on budget, immigration and social issues.
“There’s nothing more integral to what people of faith care about than the budget,” said Bee Moorhead, executive director of Texas Impact, an interfaith organization. “It has to do with education and jobs, health and the well-being of children and the elderly and people who are sick.”
Advocates for the program say it helps to prevent more expensive problems.
Emmett Solomon, a former director of the chaplaincy program who runs the Restorative Justice Ministries Network in Huntsville, said chaplains ease prison tensions and reduce the risk that an inmate will commit additional crimes after release.
The prison system has 121 chaplains, paid to serve the 114 prisons and jails, a practice that dates back at least to 1915.
“They’re obviously a very valuable part of the prison system,” said Michelle Lyons, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
A chaplain is assigned to each prison unit and expected to ensure inmates have a reasonable opportunity to pursue their faith. That may mean contacting clergy from a particular tradition, in addition to helping inmates of all faiths.
Goldstein is responsible for Jewish prisoners, most of whom are assigned to one of five units.
Chaplains act as counselors to both prisoners and prison staff and serve on the warden’s executive management team, according to the TDCJ Offender Orientation Handbook.
Goldstein said chaplains are involved in emotional crises, helping inmates place calls to dying family members, or breaking the news when a relative has died.
“I don’t see how the state is going to train a guard to do that,” he said.
But chaplains also focus on the future.
“People think we go around with a Bible, singing Amazing Grace,” said Father Ron Cloutier, director of correctional ministries for the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.
But most inmates are eventually released, and chaplains spend a lot of time helping them prepare for freedom.
“If they have no job skills, no place to live, no one to help them, they’re going to come knocking on your door when they come out,” Cloutier said.
‘State has a role, too’
Jennifer Carr Allmon, associate director of the Texas Catholic Conference, said some legislators believe volunteers can fill the void.
“Yes, the church provides many services for free,” she said. “That’s part of our role. But the state has a role, too.”
And the 18,000 volunteers who work in Texas prisons, most of them from churches and other religious organizations, can’t be turned loose without oversight, said Suzii Paynter, director of the Texas Baptist Budget Christian Life Commission.
“Somebody has to screen the volunteers, to make sure they’re bona fide, they’re trained, and that they know what they’re supposed to do and not do,” she said.
Training and supervising volunteers is especially important when protecting religious liberties for inmates whose faith differs from the volunteer’s, she said.
“It takes a highly skilled person to negotiate those constitutional boundaries,” Paynter said. “You might get a great volunteer, but there are no guarantees on that.”