Caring for Aging, Dying, and Dead Prisoners
A Summary of
Prison Chaplains on the Beat in US and UK Prisons
George Walters-Sleyon, PhD.
I believe that chaplaincy in prison is a calling. It is ministry, which is real, raw, diverse, illuminating, enlightening, humbling, stimulating, unpredictable, diverse, and challenging. Chaplains in prison need to have their feet on the ground, their eyes on their keys, and their lives fixed on God. They must keep their sense of humour as well as their sense of perspective; they must be able to engage with everyone and be able to let go of them too. They must be resilient, compassionate, and self-aware. I have always held Matthew 10.16 in mind in thinking about my own role as a prison chaplain: ‘Be wise as serpents and as gentle as doves!Rosie Deedes, from “Case Study” in A Handbook of Chaplaincy Studies: Understanding Spiritual Care in Public Places
This book presents theoretical and empirical research about prison chaplains and their penal experiences in the United States (U.S.) and the United Kingdom (U.K.). It performs a socio-religious and comparative criminal justice analysis of the penal systems of the United States, Scotland, and England and Wales through the eyes of prison chaplains. It provides empirical evidence gathered from 31 prison chaplains interviewed in Scotland and the United States (Massachusetts, Alabama, Rhode Island, and New Jersey). The theoretical aspect focuses on prison chaplains from the United States, Scotland, and England and Wales and reflects their recollections of prison and ways of conceptualizing their experiences in these prison cultures — the carceral state — as engagement in the fields of Criminology, Theology, Criminal Justice and the intersection of Law and Religion. While previous research on prisons includes comparative analyses of the U.S. and the U.K. penal systems, this research provides new light on the phenomenon of mass incarceration through prison chaplains’ eyes, and considers their care for aging, dying, and dead prisoners as well as the emphasis on best practice development in prison chaplaincy from an international perspective.
The book does not assume that the penal systems of the United Kingdom are monolithic. The United Kingdom has three different legal systems: Scotland, England and Wales, and Northern Ireland each have their own independent set of courts. This research focuses on the penal systems of England and Wales, and Scotland as the largest of the three. At the same time, it recognizes the three penal structures associated with the United States penal system: Federal, State, and County. Similarly, the study does not assert that the experiences of all prison chaplains are monolithic. Instead, it seeks to provide insights into how prison chaplains conceptualize their prison experiences, including their care for aging, dying, and dead prisoners, in relation to the phenomenon of mass incarceration.
The ultimate goal of this research is to provide theoretical and empirical analysis of the development of prison chaplains’ best practices in prison chaplaincy and care of prisoners from an international perspective. The project aims:
- To provide a theoretical and empirical analysis of prison chaplains’ care for aging, dying, and dead prisoners in the United States and the United Kingdom’s carceral states.
- To provide a descriptive and analytical understanding of the multi-prison-faceted and neo-orthodox roles of prison chaplains and their prison recollections under the various expressions of the prison culture of the United States and the United Kingdom.
- To explore the contexts of prison chaplains’ best practice development in caring for aging, dying, and dead prisoners.
- To explore prison chaplains’ concepts of best practices in self-care from an international perspective considering the high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and suicides among prison staff and correctional officers. Prison workers are not immune to the emotional anxieties of the prison culture. The book provides an analysis of this experience and shows how prison workers, including prison chaplains, are engaged in the practice of self-care.
The research also explores how prison chaplains since 1970 conceptualize their prison experiences based on their religious, theological, social, and educational backgrounds. It shows how prison chaplains navigate the United States and the United Kingdom’s prison cultures.
Participants represent a total of 10 different religious affiliations. They are: Roman Catholic (29%), Islam (6%), Baptist (9%), Pentecostal (13%), the Nation of Islam (6%), Multi-faith (3%), the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) (3%), Church of Scotland (22%), Buddhist (3%) and the Church of England (3%). Cumulatively, participants’ religious backgrounds consisted of three religious groups and several intra-religious denominations. Christianity had six denominations represented. There were two Islamic groups, one Buddhist and one participant of a multi-faith background. The Roman Catholic had the highest representation among Christian denominations, with 29%, followed by the Church of Scotland with 22%.
Since the 1700s, prison chaplains have been on the beat in the prisons of the United Kingdom and the United States. This book investigates prison chaplains’ roles as pastoral care providers after 1970 in the penal systems of both the United States and the United Kingdom. It explores the salient functions of prison chaplaincy, the various aspects of the prison culture, and the phenomenon of mass incarceration. Considering the poignancy of their roles in the development of the United Kingdom and the United States’ modern penal systems, this research explores the continuity and discontinuity between the historical and the new roles of prison chaplains. Moreover, it investigates the various increases in prison populations through the recollections of prison chaplains who attend to the spiritual needs of aging, dying, and dead prisoners.
This book is prefaced on the shifts to penal harshness, long-term imprisonment, and the prison boom after 1970 in the U.S. and the U.K. responsible for producing an international penal phenomenon called “mass incarceration.” As religious care providers, prison chaplains are uniquely placed to witness and comment on these penal transitions in policies and prison populations along with their cumulative effects.
Prison chaplains in the United States and the United Kingdom penal systems are on the frontline. In the words of Helen Dearnley, a prison chaplain with Her Majesty Prison Chaplaincy of England and Wales, prison chaplaincy is akin to being imprisoned.
The door slammed shut, the sound of metal upon metal echoing eerily as I sat on the bunk in the cell. I looked at the door, the closed gateway to freedom, and realized that there was no keyhole on the inside, this really is prison. But I’m the chaplain, and I can get up and walk away when I choose to do so. Those I serve can’t (241).
Dearnley’s statement demonstrates the contrast between the emotional and the administrative experience of the prison chaplain. Emotionally, prison chaplains consider themselves imprisoned with the prisoners. However, their structural positions as their prison chaplains affords them the opportunity to come and go freely. While subjected to the emotions of the prison culture, they are not subjected to the penal restrictions and regulations that prisoners experience.
Since the eighteenth century, chaplains have responded to prisoners’ emotional, spiritual, and psychological needs while facilitating modern penitentiary development. Prison chaplains’ roles and services have not deviated from these core responsibilities. What has changed is the rate at which they provide care for aging, dying, and dead prisoners in the United States and the United Kingdom’s modern prison cultures. The experience shows how prison chaplains remain and have become indispensable, particularly after the peculiar penal developments of the 1970s and their radical alteration of prison’s population demographics.
According to the Howard League, England and Wales’ present level of “obsession with crime and punishment is a relatively new phenomenon.” The current penal development mostly began in the 1970s when crime and justice became major concerns in English political life. The League explains the phenomenon thus:
Elected to office on promises of reducing crime and instigating tougher punishments for offenders, governments since the late 1970s have cultivated then appealed to punitive misunderstandings of crime, fear, risk, and punishment. We have grown used to a mantra that ‘prison works’ and that severe forms of punishment are the only solutions to problems of crime and disorder.
Since the 1970s, studies have shown that imprisonment as a complete form of punishment increased in the United Kingdom and the United States. As a result of this increased and sustained growth, the “prison boom” has emerged. Along with the collateral problems caused by this “punitive misunderstanding” are the penal problems of high rates of aging, dying, and dead prisoners. For most prison chaplains in the U.S. and the U.K., these are the fundamental concerns of their vocation. This book investigates the chaplains’ strategy, ability to respond, and the ways that they have responded to these issues both historically, and today.
To be effective, a chaplain has to be a people person. They have to be able to connect and get along with people. They have to be approachable and reliable, trustworthy and have integrity. For me, chaplaincy is all about relationships with prisoners, with staff, and with management (PC113).
This book proposes using a research method defined as the Theo-Criminal Justice Comparative Approach (TCJCA). It explores the penal cultures of the U.S. and the U.K. as critical theological engagements. Designed as an interdisciplinary approach, the TCJCA combines the disciplines of theology, comparative criminal justice, criminology, law and religion. A central goal of TCJCA is to formulate the means necessary to investigate, analyze, and interpret the “lived experiences” of prisoners facing punitive sentences.
The book is divided into four short sections: Empirical, Descriptive, Normative, and Prescriptive.The components reflect a holistic narrative of prison chaplains’ roles in the penal systems of the U.S. and the U.K.
In the first section, I provide a comparative analysis of prison chaplaincy before 1970. This section explores the historical approach of prison chaplains as prophetic, priestly, and central to the foundations of modern prison chaplaincy. This section establishes the indispensability of prison chaplains in prison management. Moreover, it introduces my research approach and the empirical research on thirty-one prison chaplains in the United States and Scotland. The central question of the Empirical section is: What is there to investigate? Section One consists of Chapters 1 to 3.
In the second section (The Descriptive: The Normativity of Darkness), I analyze the increasing rates of aging, dying, and dead prisoners in the U.S. and the U.K. prisons. This section fulfills the Descriptive Task by responding to the question: What is going on? Section Two consists of Chapters 4 to 6.
The third section (The Normative) demonstrates how prison chaplains are providing care to aging, dying, and dead prisoners. Furthermore, it analyses the best practices of prison chaplains and their means of theological conceptualization in their “God-talks” with prisoners. It fulfills the Normative Task and answers the question What ought to be going on? Section Three consists of Chapters 7 and 8.
The final section of this book (The Prescriptive: The Future of Prison Chaplaincy in U.S. and U.K. Prisons) addresses the question How might we respond? This section defines prison chaplains as agents of hope while demonstrating how they function as such. It further expands on self-care concepts for prison chaplains and other prison staff, and considers the emotional and psychological stressors generated by the prison environment, which often lead to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It consists of Chapters 9 to 11. Based on the theoretical and empirical analyses of prison chaplains’ roles, the book concludes with a list of recommendations: The Future of Prison Chaplaincy in the Era of Mass Incarceration.
Some Research Findings
This research demonstrates how prison chaplaincy is inherently religious and centered on the utility of “God talks” in caring for prisoners. It is primarily a religious practice that is executed in secular institutions with best practices of care, respect, and relational skills for prisoners and prison staff. The research explores the modern prison chaplaincy’s religious roots as fundamental to the post-1970 prison chaplains’ best practice development. According to Peter Kevern and Wilf McSherry,
Chaplaincy has its origins and roots primarily within a Christian, religious, pastoral, and theological tradition that has left an enduring legacy and host of associations and connotations. It remains the case that the majority of chaplains are practicing Christians, and where they are not, they are likely to be representing another religious tradition (48).
While they acknowledge the decline of religion in the United Kingdom, Kevern and McSherry note the indispensability of chaplaincy with an inherent religious foundation. Notwithstanding the drive to secularize chaplaincy and, in particular, prison chaplaincy, Kevern and McSherry explain that chaplains are often “representatives of a particular religion” who serve “institutional values and ends” as “therapists.” Hence the “reflective and reflexive” nature of chaplaincy. With that understanding, they note that “truly secular or non-religious chaplains are still very rare” (48).
Like prisoners, prison chaplains are spending more time behind bars. Prisoners are spending more time in prisons, and prison chaplains are spending more time with prisoners. The increase in time spent behind bars has led to the rise in aging, dying, and dead prisoners in the U.S. and the U.K. penal systems. Based on their years of prison chaplaincy, prison chaplains have described these experiences as “the normativity of darkness” (PC111). Their increasing years of service also provide them with many valuable insights into the prison industrial complex. The average number of years served in jails or prisons for all of the chaplains I studied from Scotland and the United States is thirty-one. 32% of the participants said they served two to five years as jail or prison chaplains. 32% of the prison chaplain participants served in jails or prisons for six to ten years. Furthermore, 13% of the participants noted that they had served sixteen to twenty years as chaplains. 6% of the participants said they served as jail or prison chaplains for eleven to fifteen years, with another 6% serving as jail or prison chaplains for twenty-one to twenty-five years. The highest number of years participants served as the jail or prison chaplains were thirty-one to thirty-five years, an amount of time served by 9% of the participants. Jail or prison chaplains from the United States are likely to serve more years in the prisons. In Scotland, prison chaplains are likely to serve more years than chaplains in the rest of the U.K but not as much as their U.S. counterparts.
Prisons Chaplains are Multi-Prison Faceted: Most prison chaplains simultaneously serve multiple prisons and jails in the United States and the United Kingdom. I refer to this phenomenon as “multi-prison-faceted.” Multi-prison-faceted implies a robust and dynamic approach in the development of prison chaplaincy post-1970. Due to the increased emphasis on imprisonment, the shift to harsh punishment for violent and non-violent crimes and the increased prison populations that result from those policies, prison chaplains are serving more than one prison or jail at the same time. The ways in which prison chaplains navigate multiple prisons and jails simultaneously in response to prisoners’ emotional, religious, and psychological needs demonstrates prison chaplain’s unusual approach to their work after 1970.
25.8% of the participants responded that they had served one prison or jail in the SPS and the U.S. penal system. Similarly, 39% of participants said they had served two to three jails and prisons. In comparison, 25.8% of the participants indicated that they had served four to five jails and prisons during the period of their prison chaplaincy. 3% of the participants reported that they had served six to seven jails and prisons during their chaplaincy. 6.4% indicated that they had served ten to eleven jails and prisons in Scotland and the United States.
Reading of the Sacred Text in the Prison is for the “Poor”: Many participants alluded to the practice that PCA131 describes as “reading the Gospel from the bottom up.” Chaplains take prisoners’ spiritual and socio-economic conditions into consideration when interpreting any sacred text. PCS110 notes that reading any sacred text in prison is “no different to working with human beings outside except to say that God has a gentle concern for the marginalized.” While PCS108 emphasizes sensitivity to the prisoners’ spiritual and emotional conditions, PCA131 and PCS110 underscore the prisoners’ socio-economic plights as conditions for their incapacitation. These concerns highlight the importance of prison chaplains having responsibilities both to the prison administration and to humanity.
Prison Chaplains’ Concepts of Punishment: The Call for Mercy: Participants were not ambivalent about why the prisoners were incarcerated. Nevertheless, what is central to their responses are the diverse reflections on the intersection between punishment and judgment and the need for mercy, justice, and truth influenced by their religious and theological backgrounds. Prisoners are imprisoned because they committed crimes. Still, prison chaplain participants are somewhat concerned about the length, impact, and severity of the punishment for violent and non-violent offenses, a phenomenon responsible for the increased rates of aging and dying prisoners.
Eighty percent of participants indicated that the U.S. and U.K.’s prison cultures had affected their punishment concepts; however, 20% of the participants said that the US and the UK prison cultures had not affected their ideas of punishment. 76% of the participants indicated that the U.S. and U.K.’s prison cultures had affected their judgment concepts, with 23% of the participants reporting that it had not. The Yes and No options and responses are not binary. What follows is an analysis of how both concepts are viewed inclusively and exclusively. While there were participants whose concepts of punishment and judgment were not affected, the rest of the participants reported a reorientation of their views considering the collateral consequences of the current penal policies and their production of the prison boom.
Being privy to the immediate effects of mass incarceration and its debilitating conditions, prison chaplains find themselves in the unusual position of mending lives broken by conditions of punitive sentences for violent and non-violent crimes. PCS109 explains:
A lot of punishment seems to be unjust in itself and in its practical implications. The way that it is operated by the state often seems to lack a rationale or purpose. As a prison chaplain, I wish to emphasize mercy and forgiveness a lot more ― and think that the concept of restorative justice is one that needs to be emphasized and considered more. Punishment should be restorative for all involved and not just destructive (PCS109).
PCS109’s response is analytical. It is about the need for justice in punishing offenders of the law and emphasizing restorative justice in contrast to retributive justice. Without rejecting personal responsibilities for wrong committed, PCS109 points to the absence of humanness and “fairness” in punishment. When speaking about judgment, PCS109 highlights the distinction between a God-centered punishment and a state-centered punishment.
I don’t think we are judged by what we have done or failed to do ― but judged based on what we have done about God’s offer of love, grace, and acceptance. I am not sure that God grades bad acts in the way that we do (PCS109).
References to religious and theological virtues dominate the participants’ perceptions of punishment and judgment. Like the previous participants, PCS109 views punishment and judgment through the prism of love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness. Participants interpret the absence of these themes as a deficit in virtues in these penal systems.
Take, for instance, the response of PC114: I still believe punishment is necessary. However, I now also realize that everyone deserves another chance. PC114 does not denounce punishing the offender but is concerned about the need for a second chance for prisoners in the penal culture. A personal reflection on judgment should clarify PC114’s response to punishment:
Before, I was very quick to judge others. Nevertheless, after speaking to many prisoners who have made mistakes and hearing their stories, I realize they themselves have been victims of many traumatic events: broken homes, no strong parental figures, childhood sexual abuses, etc. This has made me realize I have no right to judge anyone for their crimes, as I will never truly understand the experiences which led to that crime. I can still challenge their behavior but can never look down on them (PC114).
PCS109 echoes the sentiments of PC114’s reflections. For PCA131, Prison is punishment ― Correction without compassion is useless. PCS127 notes a transformation in their concept of punishment: My concept of judgment has helped me to understand forgiveness, mercy, and grace. Participants’ emphasis on love and mercy’s theological themes should not be interpreted as soft on crime and punishment. Instead, their quest for the manifestation of mercy, truth, and justice reflects their immediate identification with the prisoner’s plight and their religious backgrounds as fundamental influences on their chaplaincy praxis.
Prison Chaplains on the Beat in US and UK Prisons: Caring for Aging, Dying and Dead Prisoners is about prison chaplains and their “functional” and “substantial” presence in the modern penal systems of the United States and the United Kingdom. The research further underscores the indispensability of prison chaplains in the U.S and U.K.’s prison cultures. While they may have an existential impact on the prison communities they serve, prison chaplains are also “imprisoned” — both physically and experientially. They live, walk, and talk with prisoners, and require adequate self-care measures themselves. The book concludes with a list of recommendations. These recommendations call for the revaluation and reassessment of the value of prison chaplains and their roles in the modern prisons of the U.S. and the U.K. ♦
George Walters-Sleyon PhD. is a McDonald Distinguished Fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion, Emory University and Adjunct Professor at Bunker Hill Community College, Boston. He received his PhD. from the University of Edinburgh (UK), and S.T.M. and MDiv. from Boston University. His research focuses on philosophy, comparative criminal justice, ethics, religion, theology, and social theory.
Walter-Sleyon, George. “Caring for Aging, Dying, and Dead Prisoners: A Summary of Prison Chaplains on the Beat in US and UK Prisons.” Canopy Forum, February 02, 2022. https://canopyforum.org/2022/02/02/caring-for-aging-dying-and-dead-prisoners-a-summary-of-prison-chaplains-on-the-beat-in-us-and-uk-prisons/.