Prison Chaplains Have Big Job


Cecil E. McFarland is president of the
Chaplain Service of the Churches of Virginia, in Interdemoninational effort.
They perform a host of duties in serving state’s incarcerated
The Richmond Times Dispatch
August 2, 2008
By Robin Farmer
Times-Dispatch Staff Writer
As Virginia’s prison population has increased, so has the religious diversity of inmates. Chaplains provide spiritual guidance for a population of about 34,000 – larger than that of Petersburg. Cecil E. McFarland, president of the Chaplain Service of the Churches of Virginia, talks about the work chaplains do.

Q. What’s unique about your organization?

A. Virginia…is the only state where prison chaplains are not state employees. Because of our state constitution and its emphasis on separation of church and state, ministry to inmates in Virginia’s state prisons must be provided by an outside, contracted entity. We are the official agency that provides chaplains to the state’s adult and juvenile prison systems. We’re also unique in that we are an interdenominational effort.

  Q What’s your budget?

A. For the current year, it’s $1,254,968, and $654,968 of this comes from donations from denominations, churches, foundations and individuals. The other $600,000 comes from the Virginia Department of Corrections’ Inmate Commissary Fund. This is general fund money, not from taxpayers, that the General Assembly approved for us to receive because religious programs and services benefit the inmates. It’s important to note that for 82 years, our ministry provided chaplains to the state prisons ‘free of charge.’ There was no state funding whatsoever. But when the prison building boom began in the 1990s, it became impossible for us to keep up with the demand for chaplains. So in 2002, the General Assembly approved for us to receive general funds from the inmate commissaries.

Q How many chaplains are working, and how many are needed?

A. We currently have 37 chaplains ministering in 33 adult state prisons and in four state juvenile correctional facilities. The chaplains minister to approximately 33,000 adult inmates, male and female, and to 1,000 juveniles – 900 young men and 100 young women. Only 13 of the 37 chaplains are full time. The rest are contract chaplains who generally work 15 to 30 hours a week in the prisons. Most also serve as pastors in local churches, so they have a pretty heavy load. Our urgent need is to increase our funding so we can promote most of these part-time chaplain positions to full-time. American Correctional Association standards call for a full-time chaplain in every prison that has a population of 500 or more inmates. Most of Virginia’s major prisons house around 1,000 inmates. Additionally, more new prisons will be built in upcoming years. This means that we will need additional funds so we can place chaplains at these prisons.

Q What are the chaplains’ responsibilities?

A. They serve as Christian pastors to inmates of that faith. In this role, they conduct worship services, preach, teach, administer sacraments and provide spiritual counseling and crisis intervention. A chaplain also is the religious coordinator for the institution. The Chaplain schedules meeting times and … provides religious materials and secures religious volunteers from the community for inmates of all faiths. Chaplains ensure that whether you are Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or whatever, you will be able to practice your religion in the least restrictive means possible.


Q Why should the public care whether inmates have access to chaplains?

A. Well, for one thing, this is America. People do not lose their guaranteed First Amendment right to religious liberty when they are incarcerated. There are … restrictions on what they can do, but generally inmates have the right to worship, study and grow in their faith. Also, Congress passed, and the president signed into law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act in 2000. Since this was passed, there has been a huge emphasis on faith-based prison and transitional programs.
But most importantly, there is an ethical responsibility to provide opportunities for redemption and change to persons who are incarcerated. Nearly all inmates are eventually going to be released back into the community. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if many of these individuals could experience a spiritual conversion or possibly reconnect to abandoned religious beliefs and go on to grow in their faith while they’re incarcerated? We are creating a safer society for our children and grandchildren when ex-offenders come back into society with a new or renewed set of values.

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