Religion and religious people have always been a presence in American prisons. Indeed, some of the country’s first prisons were established at the urging of and with help from people of faith, who hoped that inmates could be reformed during their confinement.1

Today, religious people still play an important role in the U.S. criminal justice system. Almost all of the nation’s more than 1,100 state and federal prisons have at least one paid chaplain or religious services coordinator, and collectively they employ about 1,700 professional chaplains.2

These ministers, priests, imams, rabbis and religious lay people sit at the intersection of two social trends. The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the developed world, with approximately 2.3 million men and women – or about 1-in-100 of the nation’s adults – behind bars.3 The U.S. also stands out among industrial democracies for its high levels of religious commitment, with about four-in-ten American adults saying they attend religious services weekly or more often, nearly six-in-ten saying that religion is very important in their lives and more than nine-in-ten saying they believe in God or a higher power.4

The constitutional right of Americans to the free exercise of religion – even if they are behind bars – has been affirmed by courts and bolstered by federal legislation, and the first duty of prison chaplains is to help meet the religious needs of inmates. But, increasingly, chaplains are asked to do much more. In the face of studies suggesting that more than 40% of former inmates end up back in prison within a few years, chaplains in many prisons are called upon to fight recidivism by counseling inmates and connecting them with religious organizations or other social service providers that can offer job training, substance abuse treatment, education and other assistance before and after their release.5

In light of public concern about religious terrorism since the 9/11 attacks, chaplains also are sometimes viewed as a first line of defense against the spread of religious extremism. While they work to provide compassionate care to individual inmates, chaplains are charged with assisting wardens and other correctional officials to maintain the safety and security of the prisons where they work. Indeed, chaplains often are considered part of a prison’s management team.

Moreover, the role of chaplains continues to be recast to suit the changing needs of the correctional system. For instance, recent research suggests that, due to a shortage of funding and staff, many chaplains have shifted their focus from direct ministry to administrative duties, such as recruiting and supervising community volunteers, processing inmate requests for special diets and other religious accommodations, and organizing secular as well as religious programs to counsel, mentor and educate inmates.6

For all these reasons, the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life decided to conduct a large-scale survey of professional prison chaplains across the United States. We received generous financial support for this endeavor from the Annie E. Casey Foundation as well as from The Pew Charitable Trusts. With the endorsement of the American Correctional Chaplains Association and months of unrelenting effort, Pew Forum Senior Researcher Stephanie C. Boddie obtained approval from correctional authorities in all 50 states to survey the more than 1,400 state prison chaplains.

With the encouragement of present and former prison officials, we also sought permission to include federal prison chaplains in the survey. Unfortunately, the Federal Bureau of Prisons decided not to allow its approximately 250 chaplains to participate.

Part of the impetus for the survey is that little data have been available to the public on the role of religion in state prisons.7 State and federal correctional authorities routinely report information on the age, sex and race/ethnic origin of prisoners, as well as the types of offenses for which they are incarcerated. And, according to the chaplains surveyed, many prisons also keep track of the religious preferences of inmates, as well as of religious switching. But those data are seldom or never made public.

As a result, “Religion in Prisons: A 50-State Survey of Prison Chaplains” presents a rare window into religion behind bars. Although chaplains, like all observers, undoubtedly bring their own perspectives and predilections to bear, they also occupy a valuable vantage point as correctional workers who have regular, often positive interactions with inmates and take a strong interest in the role of religion in inmates’ lives.

The survey covers a lot of ground, asking chaplains to describe their daily role in the prisons and to rate their job satisfaction. In addition, we asked them to list the tasks on which they spend the most time and the tasks they consider most important – two lists that are not always the same. We sought their assessments of religious volunteers who come into the prisons to work with inmates, as well as their perspectives on the strengths and weaknesses of the correctional system, the quality and reach of rehabilitation programs and possible ways of cutting costs.

We also asked for their impressions about religious life in prisons, including the religious composition of the inmate population, the amount of proselytizing and conversion that take place, which religious groups seem to be growing or shrinking, and how much religious extremism they perceive in the prisons where they work. At several key points in the survey questionnaire – which was administered either electronically or, for those who preferred it, by paper – we gave the chaplains an opportunity to elaborate on their views and experiences in their own words.

Their answers suggest that religion in prisons may be quite different, in some ways, from religion in American society at large. For example, chaplains indicate that there is a visible presence in some prisons of small religious groups that many Americans may never have heard of, such as Asatru, Odinism and the Moorish Science Temple of America. (For brief definitions, see Appendix D: Glossary.) A number of chaplains also think that some inmates claim to belong to particular religious groups solely to obtain privileges or benefits, such as kosher food. But, on the whole, chaplains had many positive things to say about the role of religion in rehabilitating inmates. Most are also very happy in their jobs. Though the picture that emerges is complicated and sometimes surprising, our hope is that the survey will contribute to a better understanding of the role that chaplains – and, more broadly, religion – play in the lives of inmates.


In preparing this survey, the Pew Forum received invaluable advice from a number of eminent scholars and experts in the criminal corrections field. They include Todd Clear, dean of Rutgers School of Criminal Justice; John DiIulio, the Frederic Fox Leadership Professor of Politics, Religion, and Civil Society at the University of Pennsylvania; Catherine A. Gallagher, associate professor in Criminology, Law and Society at George Mason University;  Tom O’Connor, CEO of Transforming Corrections and former research manager for the Oregon Department of Corrections; Jody Sundt, assistant professor and graduate coordinator in the Division of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Portland State University; Farid Senzai, fellow and director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding; and Sister Susan Van Baalen, former chief chaplain at the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Several other scholars generously provided feedback and assistance at various stages in the conceptualization of the project. A complete list of advisers can be found in Appendix E.

As previously noted, the survey received a very helpful endorsement from the American Correctional Chaplains Association (ACCA). We would like to thank its leadership team, particularly Anthony J. Bruno, current chancellor and past president of the ACCA and director of religious services at the Connecticut Department of Correction; Dale Hale, president of the ACCA and Salvation Army major; Gary Friedman, communications chairman for the ACCA and chairman of Jewish Prisoner Services International; and Stephen Hall, first vice president of the ACCA and director of religious and volunteer services at the Indiana Department of Correction.

Also as previously noted, the survey received substantial funding from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, where Carole E. Thompson was an unstinting – and patient – supporter of this effort.

Fieldwork for the survey was carried out by Social Science Research Solutions (SSRS) and very competently led by Robyn Rapoport and Linda Lomelino. While the survey design was guided by our advisers, contractors and consultants, the Pew Forum is solely responsible for the interpretation and reporting of the data.

Luis Lugo, Director
Alan Cooperman, Associate Director, Research


1 For an account of religion’s role in the early history of prisons in America, see Jennifer Graber, “The Furnace of Affliction: Prisons and Religion in Antebellum America,” University of North Carolina Press, 2011. (return to text)

2 In addition to state and federal prisons, the U.S. penal system also includes county and city jails that typically hold people awaiting trial and those sentenced for misdemeanors to terms of one year or less. For more details on the prison system, see Appendix C. (return to text)

3 As of 2010, one in every 104 U.S. adults was in the custody of state or federal prisons or local jails, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. See Lauren E. Glaze, “Correctional Population in the United States, 2010 (PDF),” U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2011. See also “One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008,” Pew Center on the States, Public Safety Performance Project, February 2008. (return to text)

4 For measures of religious commitment in the U.S., see “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey,” Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, 2007. For measures of religious commitment in other countries, see “Unfavorable Views of Jews and Muslims on the Increase in Europe,” Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project, 2008. (return to text)

5 See “State of Recidivism: The Revolving Door of America’s Prisons,” Pew Center on the States, Public Safety Performance Project, 2011. (return to text)

6 See Richard Denis Shaw, “Chaplains to the Imprisoned: Sharing Life With the Incarcerated,” Haworth Press, 1995, and Jody L. Sundt, Harry R. Dammer and Francis T. Cullen, “The Role of the Prison Chaplain in Rehabilitation,” Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, Volume 35, Issue 3/4, pages 59-86, 2002. (return to text)

7 Some data on the religious affiliation of inmates in federal prisons and selected state prisons as of 2007 are available from the United States Commission on Civil Rights. See “Enforcing Religious Freedom in Prison (PDF),” United States Commission on Civil Rights, 2008. (return to text)

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