Prisons Pray for Surge in Chaplains

Those who might have the greatest need to repent this High Holiday season may not be able to.

A severe shortage in Jewish chaplains has led to a situation where the spiritual needs of some prisoners in California’s state and federal correctional institutions are not being met.

"When it comes to holidays and services, there’s a very real concern that we’re not doing a very effective and adequate job at serving in institutionalized settings," said Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California (BOR). "There are many institutionalized Jews that do not have the benefits of a rabbi."

Historically, prisons have found it increasingly difficult to attract chaplains to fill available positions. Current California budget cuts have most recently eliminated many vacant prison chaplain positions. The result is an inadequate number of Jewish chaplains in relation to a rising Jewish prison population.

According to BOR, the governing board that certifies all Jewish chaplains serving in the California Department of Corrections (CDC), Jews make up approximately .5 percent to 1 percent of the total inmate population. While it is difficult to get an exact count due to inmate privacy laws, the BOR formula reveals that there are between 805 and 1,610 Jews in California state prisons — the third- largest Jewish prisoner population in the country. Although comparably smaller, the fastest-growing Jewish inmate population is found in the federal system. Following the formula, there are between 72 and 144 Jews in federal prisons in California. However, an estimate by the Bureau of Prisons is higher, arriving at approximately 228 Jews in the federal system.

While there are more Jewish prisoners than ever, there are fewer chaplains. Five years ago, there were 12 full-time, professional civil service chaplains employed by the CDC, and now there are only eight. Also, the California federal prisons and the California Youth Authority has no Jewish chaplains in their employ, and nearly a third of the part- and full-time Jewish chaplain positions in the CDC are vacant.

The shortage of chaplains is neither a new — nor a Jewish — problem. Poor work conditions, long hours, low pay and inaccessibility, have always made it difficult for prisons to attract and maintain chaplains. Recently, however, the problem has grown because of chaplains’ reduced authority: they used to report directly to the warden, but now are required to report to a community resource manager (CRM) whose purpose is to oversee religious programming. Many see this as a demotion.

"It’s more difficult to gain access to the administration, and as a result it makes it difficult to perform our tasks efficiently," said Lon Moscowitz, the Jewish chaplain at California Men’s Colony where there are 50-70 Jewish prisoners at any one time. "So it’s kind of grueling work."

California’s recent budget crisis has added additional strain to an already desperate situation. In order to reduce spending, most prisons have stopped hiring full-time chaplains. Employee salaries have been cut, benefits reduced and hiring freezes and eliminated positions have become routine. On June 30, the California Department of Finance ruled that all unfilled state agency positions would be eliminated: 13 multidenominational chaplain positions in California state prisons were lost and 31 out of 33 CRM positions will be done by October.

Although the mass eliminations have only resulted in a loss of three fractional Jewish positions, it spurred great concern among Jewish prison chaplains regarding their present job security and the impact further cuts would have on Jewish inmates.

"The consequence is that serious programs of rehabilitation aren’t going to be there for the inmates," Moscowitz said. "If there are no chaplains to facilitate and supervise programs then the inmates can’t learn and grow Jewishly or spiritually, and if that’s the case they’ll be walking out of prison at their parole no better than when they came in and most likely worse."

Many chaplains have already seen the effects of the shortage. Taking advantage of limited chaplain support, proselytizing missionaries are stepping forward to fill a spiritual void. Evangelists enter the prisons as volunteers and encourage conversion of Jewish inmates. (The BOR does not allow Jewish chaplains to convert inmates during incarceration.) There are currently four states that have replaced all civil service chaplains with volunteer missionaries in order to reduce spending.

Without a visible Jewish presence in prison, Jewish prisoners have become increasingly vulnerable, putting many Jewish prisoners in the way of rampant anti-Semitism. Nazi gangs and white supremacists are so common that the majority of Jewish prisoners never "come out" as Jews.

Stuart Thompson, a former prisoner, told The Journal that he considers himself lucky that he did not have a "Jewish name."

"I could have been badly hurt," Thompson said, adding that his brother, who is currently incarcerated is much more danger because of his obvious Jewish looks. "My brother has been threatened that because he is a Jew ‘he better watch out.’ They don’t have a rabbi available and I think that’s horrible."

This High Holiday season, in an effort to keep Jewish prisoners from falling through the cracks, some in the Jewish community have picked up the slack. During the High Holidays, many volunteers provide religious materials, visit inmates and their families in remote prisons, and lead additional services.

Without the help of such organizations, many Jewish prisoners are abandoned by the prison system and often rejected by their families and the greater Jewish community.

"We must fulfill the community’s responsibility to our incarcerated brethren and their families," said Gary Friedman, Pacific Southwest president of Jewish Prisoners International. "All Israel is responsible for each other. It doesn’t say ‘just some of us.’"

Inmate advocacy and Jewish chaplain organizations such as Jewish Prisoners International, Alef and local Chabad groups, send Jewish chaplains into prisons as volunteers, conducting religious services and lobbying for the religious rights of Jewish prisoners. The Jewish Committee for Personal Service sends volunteer social workers into the prisons and Beit T’Shuvah Los Angeles, a residential, therapeutic community, offers alternative sentencing for Jewish prisoners recovering from alcoholism and substance abuse, and residency when inmates are released from prison.

The BOR plays a major part in serving Jewish prisoners. Last year, its Planning and Allocations Department approved $10,000 in order to provide prisoners with Tanachs. The move was made in response to a study funded by the Jewish Community Foundation that evaluated and identified the needs of Jews in prisons and hospitals. Until the approval, only free Christian Bibles and free Korans were available to prisoners. This Rosh Hashanah, the study brought about a donation of personalized Tanach plates and Jewish 12-step books for identified Jewish prisoners.

Recently, the BOR took the budget crisis in its own hands and amended state regulations to allow nonordained rabbis to serve as chaplains. The amendment, which took more than two years for six state agencies to sign off on, was modeled after a similar Catholic action, which trained deacons and nuns when priests were in short supply. While the move has come under fire by some Jewish chaplains who believe that a lack of rabbinical school will make for unqualified Jewish chaplains, the BOR insists that in order to qualify for chaplaincy, candidates must be knowledgeable Jewishly and qualified to provide guidance to prisoners.

Diamond said that the role of BOR Jewish chaplains is not to judge prisoners, but to listen, provide guidance and education.

The BOR also employs several Jewish chaplains in L.A. County prisons and oversees the Community Services Commission, which sends volunteer chaplains into prisons.

"We take great pride in serving people that are marginalized in the Jewish community," Diamond said. "And you’d be hard-pressed to find a group that is more marginalized than Jewish prisoners."