Justice IG: Badly depleted US prison chaplain corps 'impairs' safety

Some facilities are allowing inmates convicted of terror-related crimes to lead religious services


By Kevin Johnson
USA Today
        
WASHINGTON —The chaplain corps serving the vast federal prison system is so badly depleted that officials have allowed inmates convicted of terror-related offenses or with links to terrorist organizations to lead religious services, an internal Justice Department review found.

Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz's report found that the chaplain ranks, with 236 serving more than 150,000 inmates, is down by 30% and represents just eight of 24 faith groups recognized by the federal prison system.

"We found that a significant shortage in the number of chaplains and other chaplaincy services staff impairs the BOP's ability to implement a safe and effective religious services program," the report concluded, noting that officials relied on alternate inmate-led programs "without ensuring adequate supervision and oversight..."

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

"For example, we found that some institutions permitted inmates with a known nexus to international or domestic terrorism to lead religious services," according to the report.

Justice auditors said prison staffers "consistently" reported that inmate-led services presented "safety and security risks" and the potential for inmates to radicalize others while serving in religious leadership roles.

Of the dozen prisons included in the review, auditors found that inmates convicted of terror-related crimes or with known connections to terrorist organizations were permitted to lead religious services at four of the institutions.

At three prisons, investigators inspected storage lockers reserved for religious materials and found prohibited items, including information that "advocated violence and extremist beliefs..."

At one prison, a storage locker "contained documents and images advocating white supremacy."

Federal prison officials, in a written response to the inspector general, agreed with all the report's findings, adding that the agency is reviewing its policies for allowing inmate-led services.

The report comes as the BOP has struggled with broader staffing shortages and the coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed the lives of 240 inmates and four staff members, according to agency records.

Pandemic-related restrictions also "significantly" compromised access to religious services. Some institutions altogether suspended services by outside volunteer providers because of the health risks.

Next: What can go wrong in the prison chapel?

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