Cutting Prison Chaplains won’t Save Money

10 Jan, 2013

A decision to cut 49 part-time minority-faith chaplains serving federal inmates across Canada was met with widespread criticism, both inside and outside the House of Commons.

Oppositions MPs accused the government of attacking religious freedom in direct contravention of the Charter of Rights while Jewish, Muslim and Sikh clerics called it a misguided move that’s unlikely to save money or souls.

Meanwhile, Canada’s prison watchdog and the interfaith committee on chaplaincy tasked with advising the government on spiritual issues involved inmates suggest they were left out of the decision-making process altogether and are still trying to ascertain the impact.

“This is not a costly program,” NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar said. Given the government’s commitment to religious freedom abroad—it announced with great fanfare the creation of an Office of Religious Freedom—Dewar accused the government of being “hypocritical.”

Liberal justice critic, Irwin Cotler, said requiring inmates of other faiths to seek religious guidance from Christian chaplains is ‘clearly discriminatory’ and contrary to the government’s promise not to give some religions preferential treatment.

The prison chaplain program is said to cost about $6.4 million, $1.3 million of which covers the part-time chaplains. There are 49 part- time chaplains, 18 of them non-Christian. There are 80 full-time chaplains serving inmates. Beside one imam serving Ontario, the rest are either Roman Catholic or Protestant.

There are also about 2,500 volunteers providing religious services to inmates, something the government

promises to continue. Spiritual services for aboriginal inmates, which are explicitly provided for in the Correctional and Conditional Release Act, are also unaffected by the policy change.

Rabbi Dina-Hasida Mercy had a 17.5 hour/ month contract to provide services to Jewish inmates at various federal prisons. From counseling inmates and teaching Hebrew, to leading prayers and consulting with food service personnel about kosher diets, she said she can’t understand how a Christian chaplain can do it all for all faiths.

“Most people think that this is about cost savings,” she said.

A letter-campaign has been underway—the Interfaith Committee on Chaplaincy, representatives across Canada’s civil society, and the International Prisons’ Chaplaincy Association—are just a few examples. There is also a online petition found on www.change.org.

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