Lord, when did we see you in Prison?

Last year, we were asked to remove all the religious symbols from the Chapel in Cowansville Penitentiary (Quebec), a men’s federal prison with close to 700 inmates.

A chapel that was previously decorated with Christian symbols now became a neutral space within the barbed wire fences.  The theory being, that a publicly funded chapel should be accessible to all, not visually offending or putting off anyone from a tradition other than the Christian one.

Tim Smart      Files Criminality, Religion and Spirituality

So we did our house-cleaning and removed the crosses, the icons, the devotional posters and stuck them in the old confessional booths which now serve as storage.  The altar and large cross (painted by an inmate) remain on the stage, but can be closed off by drawing large curtains across so that no one’s sensibilities are offended.

And we also re-baptized the space (although that is probably the wrong term considering the current changes) calling it the Centre Multiconfessionel, or Multi-Faith Centre.

This is how it should be in our multi-faith world in a publicly funded institution.  All faiths should be welcomed and respected.


Nevertheless, it has taken the four regular Chaplains, myself included, some time to adjust our mental and emotional maps.  To go from a place where we assumed that everyone was more or less Roman Catholic and spoke French, to a Multi-Faith Centre where all are welcome takes some time for adjustment.

Though two chaplains are Roman Catholic, one is a Buddhist monk, and I am an Anglican, we are available to all inmates for counsel and conversation regardless of their religious background.  We also have now a more expanded team of visiting faith chaplains who come in to minister to the needs of men from various traditions.

An approved Imam comes in to visit with the Muslim men.  A Rabbi visits on occasion.  And the Jehovah Witnesses now have a regular Monday morning meeting after complaints launched by an inmate forced Corrections Canada to allow them access to the worship space.

Despite our multi-faith stance, we know however, that most of the men in the prison are nominally Roman Catholic, around 73%.  The other 27% are a mix of Protestants, Muslims, Natives and others.

Native Spirituality and programs for Native peoples are run from a different building with a different compliment of staff and funding.  This separation is not surprising considering the troubled and conflicted past that Native people have had with traders, missionaries, and residential schools personnel.  Nevertheless, some Native peoples do participate in various religious or educational opportunities at the Centre.

First Time

It probably does not surprise you to know that most inmates were not regular practitioners of religion prior to their incarceration.  Like many people in our society today, they are woefully ignorant of any religious tradition.  What prison provides for some inmates, is an opportunity to reconnect with the faith of their birth, and also to explore other faith traditions.

And so for some guys, this is the first time that they have regularly gone to Mass.  Or it is the first time that they have participated in bible study with prayer and singing.  Or it is the first time that they have prayed with fellow Muslims or attempted to keep the fast of Ramadan.

And because prison is a pretty boring place to be, we have some men who sample a bit of everything.  There are some guys who see the Buddhist monk, participate in the Jehovah Witness meetings, and go to Bible Study on Monday nights all in the same week.

It is fascinating to see people exploring religion for the first time in conditions where faith and hope and love are in short supply; not to mention forgiveness.

As an institutional chaplain working in multi-faith setting, it is not my job to try and recruit people for the Anglican Church or the Christian religion.  My job is to listen to people and journey with them in the exploration of faith and help to connect them to their faith tradition.

Religion, inside and outside of prison, can be either a help or a hindrance to our rehabilitation or liberation.  Chaplains are often wary of those whose religious expression may be covering up some other deep-seated anxieties and needs.  Or those who use religion to get a better diet from the cafeteria or time off from work.  Our motives for being religious are often mixed and sometimes purely selfish.  While I am not there to judge people’s motivations, I think that Chaplains want to encourage people to seek faith in ways that are genuine and express an honest desire to deepen their spirituality and practice.

Tough on Crime   

Before I was a prison Chaplain, like many people, I read about the crimes and the sentencing of people who had done some pretty horrible acts.  I was glad that they were in jail and didn’t think much about them.  Maybe I even said, ‘lock them up and throw away the key.’

When you enter a prison as a regular volunteer and then later as a chaplain, you begin to see the face and the person behind the newspaper headlines and it becomes much harder to condemn them forever.   You begin to hear the story of their lives and the things that led up to their crime and you begin to understand.  You begin to understand that people can become really mixed up inside and become corrupted by forces on the outside as well.

Historically, chaplains have been a part of the penitentiary system for a long time.  Chaplains and those running the prisons believed that isolation and time for reflection and Christian teaching were more likely to bring about reform than beatings, whippings or execution.  It was hoped that during their time of isolation from society, inmates would become penitent – sorry for their sins – hence the term “penitentiary”.

In Canada, in the modern era, Corrections Canada still hopes that incarcerated men will be sorry for what they did and take the designated programs and courses necessary for their rehabilitation. However, the religious aspect is now purely optional.  Chaplains and chapel activities are for the minority of inmates, an interesting extra.  While the Canadian Charter or Rights and Freedoms grants incarcerated men the right to practice their faith, like society at large, it is a small group of people that chooses to do so.

We are living in an era in which the present government wishes to be “Tough on Crime” and tells us that “Safe Streets” are what Canadians want.  However, most chaplains think this rhetoric is just an election ploy, fishing for votes on what seems like an easy issue to agree on.

Sure, we all want safe streets and think that crime should be punished.  But are the current policies and methods actually accomplishing this?

Hard Time

Long before the Conservative government decided to become tough on crime, rates of crime had been dropping for years.  And yet when they took the reins of government, they passed laws and instituted policies that would mean people would receive longer sentences and also find it harder to go to a minimum prison and harder to get parole.  And, at the same time, many of the little privileges that helped to make prison life bearable were being cut – like access to books, school, psychologists, community events and volunteer activities.

The goal of all these government laws and cutbacks is to be tough on incarnated people and show the public that prisoners are not being coddled.  Prison Chaplains find themselves baffled as to why the Government would cut back on programs and opportunities that would help inmates in their rehabilitation and reintegration process.  It is almost as if the system wants the men to fail by giving them as little training, as little hope as possible, and increasing their level of frustration and despair.

As ecumenical Chaplains representing all faiths inside the razor wire of prisons across Canada, many of us find ourselves out of step with a government that seems more intent on punishment than renewal of life.

How shall Chaplains offer hope to men living in increasingly crowded prisons, with fewer resources being offered, in a system which seems to randomly decide their fate day in a day out?

Daily we enter Canada’s prisons as people of faith, with no real power to change the system.  We welcome men to talk in confidence in our offices, we visit them in the “hole” (Detention), we visit them in their blocks, and we organize religious gatherings for them with our volunteers who come in from the outside.   By our presence, we hope to show them that they still matter and that they have not been written off by us and their communities.

Although we cannot easily change the system, we hope to bear witness that they are all children of God whose liberation can begin even while they live out their years behind bars.

– Tim Smart

Chaplain at Cowansville Institution
Pastor at Grace Anglican Church, Sutton

To see the French version of this article, please click on this link. 

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