The federal government's decision to cancel part-time prison chaplain contracts – effectively eliminating all but two non-Christian staff – could leave inmates of other faiths without spiritual guidance and more vulnerable to recruiting by gangs and radical religious groups, chaplains are warning.
Last month, the government confirmed that contracts with 49 part-time chaplains would not be renewed. Instead, the remaining full-time and mostly Christian chaplains will be responsible for religious services for all inmates.
A spokeswoman for Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said volunteers from a range of faiths will continue to work in federal prisons alongside full-time, multi-faith chaplains. "This approach supports the freedom of religion of prisoners while ensuring that taxpayer dollars are used wisely and appropriately," Julie Carmichael wrote in an e-mail.
But chaplains who have spoken out against the move say it runs counter to the religious rights of non-Christian offenders and could jeopardize their ability to reintegrate successfully once they're released from prison.
"Minority faith representatives that come in from the community have a very calming influence on the inmates of those faiths," said Gordon Green, a Christian chaplain who works at Atlantic Institution, a maximum-security prison in Renous, N.B. "Certainly they're very good at getting their guys focused back on their faith and trying to avoid radicalization, which is a big factor concerning public safety."
Mr. Green said Christian chaplains can provide connections to resources for inmates from other faiths, "but that's a far cry from trying to perform their rites or know their religious traditions or doctrines."
Other chaplains pointed to concerns about growing gang activity in prisons, saying spiritual leadership can help dissuade inmates from becoming more deeply involved in a criminal lifestyle.
"A lot of people are in prison for having committed a single mistake, but that doesn't mean that they're yet criminalized and dependent on a criminal subculture," said Peter Huish, who works part-time in the Federal Training Centre, a multi-level institution in Laval, Que. "That kind of criminalization can take place within prison, unless you provide the contact with normal values, normal perspectives that members of the public can bring to men inside prison."
The warnings come as the Interfaith Committee on Chaplaincy was scheduled to meet with Correctional Service of Canada commissioner Don Head in Abbotsford, B.C., on Tuesday. The committee was told Monday that Mr. Head was no longer able to attend and would be sending a representative in his place.
In a letter sent to Interfaith Committee president Monique Marchand last month, Mr. Head wrote that he planned to solicit the views of the committee's members on how to implement the new chaplaincy model. Ms. Marchand did not return e-mail requests for comment on Sunday or Monday, and several other representatives on the committee declined to speak in detail about the meeting before it had occurred.
A spokeswoman for the Correctional Service of Canada said the department will continue to respect offenders' rights and provide services to offenders of all religious backgrounds.
Hank Dixon, who works at a minimum-security prison in Manitoba, said he believes it's condescending to other faiths to expect that a Christian chaplain will be able to lead them in their religious practices. "They have a right to their own leadership, they have a right to have someone come in and take care of those services," he said.
Dina-Hasida Mercy, a rabbi and part-time chaplain whose contract was not renewed this fall, said she's worried that losing most non-Christian chaplains could have a negative impact on public safety. "Ultimately all of the prisoners have the potential to be back in the community again," she said, "and chaplains are a major part of the rehabilitation process for them."