Save our chaplains

By 
  • November 7, 2012

Chaplaincy has always been a cornerstone of the Canadian prison system.

Long before governments introduced things like professional counselling, therapy, education and job training to rehabilitate inmates, 19th-century priests and ministers brought faith to jail cells to help convicts find their way back into society.

It was understood by wardens and pastors alike that lessons in moral, ethical and civic behaviour required a spiritual grounding in faith to be truly effective. Although the years have brought considerable evolution in how prisons operate, the transforming role of faith has never changed. Inmates, more than most, need the hope and healing that is reflected in the faith of their chaplains.

So there is reason to despair over a government decision to eliminate 49 part-time chaplains from Canada’s federal prisons. Effective April 1 next year, prisons across the country will become a little more soulless for the sake of saving $1.3 million.

Canada’s 80 full-time prison chaplains will remain employed but their services will be spread thinner than ever. Particularly striking is that of those 80 chaplains just one will be non-Christian, an Iman. Of the 49 part-timers being let go, 31 are Christian and 18 currently serve non-Christian inmates.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews has offered the naive suggestion that the spiritual needs of non- Christians can be served by Christian chaplains or by volunteers. But asking a Catholic chaplain to be a spiritual advisor to say, a Buddhist, is like asking a hockey coach to mentor an ice fisherman because both sports involve ice.

Equally unrealistic is the notion of replacing paid chaplains with volunteers. In addition to concerns about their qualifications, volunteers are often managed by the very part-time chaplaincy offices that are closing. Expecting full-time chaplains to assume this overseer role would only take them from other duties and further diminish their overall effectiveness.

Beyond that, there is a fundamental unfairness in a policy that denies all prisoners equal access to faith-specific chaplaincy services. Canadians are guaranteed the right to freely practise their religion. This right has been broadly respected for as long as prisons have existed here. To now virtually choke off that right for non-Christian inmates seems discriminatory and a potential spark for a Charter challenge. It’s all so unnecessary.

Society is obligated to provide prisoners with humane care. That includes spiritual nurturing. It’s in everyone’s best interests to inject faith into jails because discovering God or reconnecting with Him is often an important step in rehabilitiation.

Of course, prisoners can no more be forced to embrace faith than they can be forced to clean their plate at suppertime. But they are entitled to have access to spiritual nourishment. That should apply to prisoners of all faiths. Equally.

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