One of the concerns raised in the Last Judgment scene in Matthew's Gospel is whether "when I was in prison you visited me."
A couple of weeks ago, I was privileged to be invited to spend a day inside the Edmonton Institution for Women (Edmonton's federal prison for women) to participate in a day-long Restorative Justice Week event. Women inmates welcomed us, joined us at tables and spent time talking with us.
Those often described in general terms simply as prisoners or inmates were encountered as real-life individuals with names, hopes and anxieties. The chaplains at the institution had an excellent rapport with the inmates and were an important part of making that event possible.
Over the past few months, prison chaplains in Canada have been very much in the news.
Vic Toews, the minister of public safety, announced that the contracts of all part-time prison chaplains were being cancelled. In Canada's federal prisons today, 49 part-time chaplains work alongside 80 full-time chaplains. This move will result in a cost savings of $1.3 million in the federal budget.
Chaplains serve a unique role in a federal prison. They represent a church or recognized faith community. Their presence sends a message that even in a prison where so many personal freedoms are curtailed or taken away, the freedom to practise one's religious faith remains.
The important role of religion and spirituality in prison is affirmed and recognized through the ministry of the chaplains. Chaplains are able to support inmates in making difficult life decisions while in prison.
Chaplains have a unique employment status in the prison. The Corrections Service of Canada (CSC) does not hire chaplains directly. Rather, the CSC contracts with a church or recognized faith community for the services of a qualified chaplain from that church or faith community. This way the churches have an institutional presence with the prison community and have a stake in what happens there.
Chaplains become facilitators for thousands of volunteers from faith communities and the general public who assist in programs, activities and spiritual outreach in the prison community.
The decision to cancel the services of the part-time contracted chaplains will have a major impact on the diversity of religions represented within the CSC chaplaincy. Of the 49 part-time chaplains, 18 are from non-Christian faith traditions. Only one full-time chaplain, a Muslim imam, is non-Christian.
Increasingly inmates (approximately 20 per cent) come from non-Christian religious traditions. The religious freedom of the inmates will be best protected and the spiritual needs of diverse populations of inmates will be best met by chaplains whose faith identity corresponds to that of the members of the prison population. The recent decision of the Public Safety Minister moves in the wrong direction on this score.
According to media reports, this government decision to cancel all part-time chaplains' contracts was triggered by news about the CSC negotiating a Wiccan part-time chaplaincy contract in British Columbia.
Christian chaplains have been part of the Canadian prison system going back at least to the 1830s. Today it is important that chaplains from other faith traditions also be hired. Minister Toews and the CSC may find that navigating the new world of diverse faith communities in Canada is complicated and unfamiliar, and yearn to go back to the earlier practice of hiring only Catholic priests and Protestant minister as prison chaplains.
But it is important to move forward and respect the spiritual needs of today's inmate population. It can be done.
Edmonton city council has faced successfully a similar multifaith challenge. Historically, representatives from Christian churches were invited to lead a morning prayer before city council meetings.
Today, there is a roster of representatives from Edmonton's different churches and religious faiths based on representation by population. Multifaith cooperation is possible.
There is a powerful public witness when representatives from different religions work together for the sake of the common good. This is especially true in a prison, where models of healing, cooperation and reconciliation are urgently needed.
One hopes that the decision to cancel part-time prison chaplain contracts is not the last word, and that there will be a new chaplaincy arrangement for Canada's federal prisons which is multifaith, maintains high professional standards, and has adequate numbers and diversity of chaplains to meet the spiritual needs of all inmates.
(Bob McKeon: firstname.lastname@example.org)