Note: This commentary was delivered by Prison Fellowship President Mark Earley.
Millions of American families are tightening their budges during these troubled financial times. Folks are looking over the family budget, deciding what things are necessary and what luxuries they’ll just have to do without.
It’s not much different with state budgets. And when times are tight, it’s easy to understand why government officials — like those in Georgia — would consider saving money by reducing the number of state prison chaplains. After all, the citizens most affected — prisoners — aren’t likely to voice their displeasure at the ballot box. And even in good economic times, prison programming and rehabilitation efforts are often seen as mere luxuries or coddling of criminals.
But rehabilitation efforts are not luxuries. They are essential to public safety and essential in a biblical worldview. Over 90% of the men and women who enter our prison systems will finish their sentences and return to the streets. What they experience behind bars will help determine what choices they make when they get out: either to return to a life of crime, or to successfully re-integrate into the community as productive citizens.
Chaplains are indispensable in this process because they are the ones who provide vital services that no other corrections personnel are trained or have time to provide: from dealing with the spiritual and emotional needs of prisoners, to providing a listening ear in a frightening and confusing environment, to helping prisoners stay connected to their family. And most importantly they help inmates develop a new moral compass and character.
But prison chaplains also provide a vital entry way for a vast army of volunteers who go behind bars to minister to prisoners–who help prisoners prepare for release, teaching them valuable skills like anger management, literacy training and family skills. Leading them in Bible studies, being coach and mentors; all things that prisoners will need once they hit the streets.
We at Prison Fellowship know how difficult it is to get volunteers into prison, where security is the top priority. We rely on chaplains to manage the process that allows officers at the gate to know who is approved for entry. It’s also the chaplains who schedule all kinds of activities for prisoners that are provided by volunteers.
Cutting chaplains will make it immensely more difficult to get these valuable volunteers into the prisons.
A better — and safer — approach to cutting costs would be to expand alternatives to incarceration for non-dangerous offenders. It costs more than $22,000 a year to keep a prisoner behind bars. But the truth is that there are many non-violent offenders in prison — people we could sentence to a wide array of less-expensive, community-based punishments that include repaying victims and performing community service. You can find out more about these alternatives at Justice Fellowship.org.
So keep track of what’s happening in your state. If you see that prison chaplains are on the cutting block, speak up! Contact your state representatives and your governor’s office. Make the case that prison chaplains aren’t a luxury. They’re essential to public safety.