Monday, September 30, 2013

Prison Chaplain - Part 2

I have part 2 of a guest post at Feminist Mormon Housewives today. It's a series of FAQs about what it's like to be a chaplain at San Quentin Prison, and I've reproduced it below.


This is part two of a three part series on what it’s like to be a prison chaplain. In Part I, I explained the background of how I got involved with prison ministry. In Part II, I’ll address some frequently asked questions about the work.


1. What is a typical day in the life of a prison chaplain?
Many religious groups have a full-time chaplain who is an employee of the prison. However, there isn’t a full-time LDS chaplain at San Quentin. Instead, there are four of us who volunteer on a part-time basis. We divide up the responsibilities so that we’re able to attend to our respective employment, family, and ward obligations as well.

San Quentin is a men’s facility with a postcard-worthy view of the San Francisco bay. We offer services for mainline inmates (the general prison population), inmates in administrative segregation, and inmates on death row. In addition, we are permitted to visit the cell blocks to see inmates who are unable to attend services. I do services for mainline inmates approximately two to three Sundays per month, depending on the schedules of the other chaplains.

The prison has a chapel complex that contains five houses of worship: a mosque, a synagogue, a Native American chapel, a Protestant chapel, and a Catholic chapel. LDS services are held in the library of the Catholic chapel at 6:00 on Sunday evenings. The chairs are arranged in a circle, and there is enough space for about 12 chairs. Usually 6 or 7 people attend.

I conduct the meeting, and we begin with a hymn and a prayer. After the prayer, one of the inmates gives the lesson. The lessons come from the same Teachings of the Presidents of the Church manual that is used for Relief Society and Melchizedek Priesthood meetings in a typical ward. At the prison, we’re about two weeks ahead of my ward, so I get a nice preview of things to come.

Because of the small group size, there is a lot of opportunity for discussion of the material. Everyone has very insightful things to contribute, and I’ve learned a lot. I especially have been touched by the stories that the inmates have shared about how being a follower of Christ has helped them to turn the other cheek and better handle conflict with the other inmates at the prison.

After the lesson is over, we close with a hymn and a prayer. If there is time left over, we watch a talk from the most recent General Conference, since they did not have the opportunity to watch it when it was aired live.

2. Isn’t it dangerous?! It’s a prison!!
I’ve been volunteering in the prison teaching college classes for two years, and I’ve felt safe the entire time. In that time, there has only been one disturbance while I was present, and it occurred in a completely different part of the prison. If there is ever a threat, volunteers are escorted out of the prison to safety.

San Quentin is a medium security facility, and most of the people I interact with are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses. Although I’ve only been a chaplain for a short while, I feel the same sense of safety in the chapel as I do in the classroom. Prison culture has a great deal of respect for chaplains, and it’s considered socially unacceptable to mess with the “God people”.

Death row has its own chapel, separate from the main area of the prison. I’m not yet cleared to go there to perform services, but when I am, I feel confident in my safety there, too. It’s set up with the safety of the chaplains in mind.

3. Why do you do chaplain work?
As I wrote about in Part I, I’ve felt called to ministry from an early age.

Plus, the words of Jesus in Matthew 25:36-40 stuck with me. “‘I was in prison, and ye came unto me.’ Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when saw we thee … in prison, and came unto thee?’ And the King shall answer and say unto them, ‘Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.’”

Visiting those in prison and serving the people our society reviles is as much a part of the duty of a Christian as feeding the hungry and caring for the sick. I’m not very good at making casseroles for the hungry or the sick, but I can listen and I can preach, so I go with what I’m good at and leave the food to people who are good at that.

4. How can you be a chaplain, since you don’t hold the priesthood?
LDS military chaplains have to hold the priesthood because a large part of their service involves the performance of ordinances. However, LDS hospital and prison chaplains do not have to hold the priesthood because the performance of ordinances is not a regular part of the service provided. The service provided by hospital and prison chaplains is mostly pastoral care - a listening ear, a reminder of the love of God, the teaching of the gospel, praying with and for them, etc.

Per church policy, worship services in prison do not include the administration of the sacrament. Non-members are permitted to attend, but they are not permitted to receive the ordinances of baptism or confirmation. If any member of the group were to request a priesthood blessing, I would arrange for one of the other chaplains to come in to perform it.

On the ecclesiastical side, the high council for the stake where the prison is located sponsors me and certifies to the prison that I’m authorized to conduct LDS services for the inmates. Since I’m not a member of the stake where the prison is located, I imagine that they’ve been in contact with my bishop and stake president, though I don’t know that for sure, since my bishop hasn’t said anything to me about it.

On the institutional side, my liaison is the Catholic priest, who is a full-time employee at the prison. If I have any issues or concerns related to the operation of the program inside the prison, or prison rules/regulations, he can help me resolve the problem by working with the prison staff.

5. How can I get involved?
My initial involvement was fairly serendipitous, so I don’t know that there is necessarily a set path. If you live near a correctional facility (a jail or prison) and want to go inside as a religious volunteer, a good first step would be to talk to your bishop, stake president, or someone on the high council. They will likely be able to put you in touch with the right people. If you’re not in a situation to go inside a facility, there are organizations that provide pen pals for inmates. I haven’t worked with any of those organizations, so I can’t vouch for any of them, but I do know that the inmates love getting mail.

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