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What can go wrong in the prison chapel?

While there are inmates who are sincere about their religious beliefs, many do not use the chapel for its intended purpose


The entrance to a prison chapel is seen at the maximum security Howard Prison state prison, in Cranston, R.I., Aug. 16, 2007.

AP Photo/Steven Senne

The prison chapel, like all areas of a correctional facility, must be kept secure. Inmates who are sincere about their religious beliefs have the right to a safe chapel to pray and worship in; however, many inmates do not use the chapel for its intended purpose.

Inmate abuse when in the prison chapel

During my years working in the state prison system and the county jail system I have seen the chapel used for many reasons other than prayer and worship. Inmate abuse of when in the chapel can include the following:

  • Conducting drug exchanges: Officers must be alert for contraband exchanges among inmates in the chapel. Inmates can make contact at Sunday church service (especially in jails) with inmates they do not normally see during the week, which makes Sunday services a prime time for contraband exchange.
  • Homosexual activity: Some inmates will use the chapel for homosexual activity during the service. They may fondle each other during the service or have sexual relations in hidden areas of the chapel. Just like in the visitation park, officers must be alert and aware that these activities may take place.
  • Arguments and fighting: Inmates may begin to argue over religious beliefs or the translation of bible verses, resulting in loud arguments or even physical altercations.
  • Hiding contraband: Some inmates hide contraband in the prison chapel believing the chapel is the least suspected area for contraband searches. For this reason, correctional officers must conduct daily searches in and around the prison chapel.
  • Attempting to escape: Six killers escaped from Glades Correctional Institution in Florida in 1995 using the chapel as cover. They dug a 45-foot long tunnel under the chapel all the way outside the razor wire.
  • Taking hostages: Correctional officers and civilians have been attacked and taken hostage inside prison chapels. Some inmates target the chapel as an easy place to take control of prison staff. Officers and civilian employees must never underestimate what may happen in the chapel.
  • Sexual assault of prison staff: There are documented cases of female correctional officers being attacked and raped by an inmate in the chapel. No officer or civilian prison staff member should be alone in the chapel with an inmate.
  • Sexual liaisons with prison staff: The prison chapel has been used for staff-inmate relationships. Such activity places everyone in danger and is the reason we must police each other and report any suspicious activity of our fellow officers and prison staff.

Why staff should not participate in prayer and bible study with inmates

Mixing religion and politics with security is dangerous. If an officer is preaching bible verses or participating in the church service with the inmates, other inmates are free to commit the violations listed above. Officers are to provide care, custody and control of inmates, as well as safety and security for everyone behind the razor wire. The prison chaplain and volunteer ministries should be the only individuals engaged in religious teachings and ceremonies. Some of the negative consequences of staff participating in bible study include:

  • Inmates will use the opportunity to manipulate staff members;
  • Inmates will want to become more involved with the staff member as a friend or sexually;
  • All training we learn regarding keeping our personal space from inmates is lost;
  • We place ourselves in a vulnerable position and cannot escape an inmate attack;
  • All our attention is drawn away from other inmate activity;
  • It gives the perception (at the minimum) of too close a relationship with the inmates;
  • Providing religious services to inmates is not part of our job description and was not taught in the corrections academy.

Do not blur professional boundaries

As correctional officers we must never let our guard down. Always watch your boundaries and keep yourself safe by doing the following:

  • Do not get involved with inmates and their religion or discuss it with them;
  • Do not get involved with inmates and their political beliefs or discuss it with them;
  • Keep all conversations with inmates professional and directed to their security needs;
  • Maintain your personal space when dealing with inmates;
  • Refer inmates to the proper person when a request is out of your area such as the prison chaplain, medical doctor, nurse, dentist and/or mental health professional.

Stay safe and always keep your eyes and ears open and your head on a swivel!

Gary York, author of “Corruption Behind Bars” and “Inside The Inner Circle,” served in the United States Army from 1978 to 1987 and was honorably discharged at the rank of Staff Sergeant from the Military Police Corps. U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Gary York completed the 7th Army Non-Commissioned Officers Leadership Academy with a 96.6% in the Train to Train method of instruction. Gary received the Army Commendation Medal and Soldier of the Quarter Award while serving. Gary was a Military Police shift supervisor for five years.

Gary then began a career with the Department of Corrections as a correctional officer. Gary was promoted to probation officer, senior probation officer and senior prison inspector where for the next 12 years he conducted criminal, civil and administrative investigations in many state prisons. Gary was also assigned to the Inspector General Drug Interdiction Team conducting searches of staff and visitors entering the prisons for contraband during weekend prison visitation. Gary also received the Correctional Probation Officer Leadership Award for the Region V, Tampa, Florida, Correctional Probation and he won the Outstanding Merit Award for leadership in the Region V Correctional Officer awards Tampa, Florida.