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For Some Faiths in Los Angeles County Jails, Volunteer Chaplains Are in Short Supply

Many prisoners are from broken homes, were homeless, or otherwise have no one who cares about them. The attention and compassion of a chaplain are their only source of human warmth.

But Los Angeles County, with a daily jail population around 17,600, doesn’t pay jail chaplains.

Consequently, the jails depend on volunteers and that means, for some faiths, demand far exceeds supply. “Certain communities are not as well-represented,” said Sheriff’s Sergeant Alex Gamboa, who works in the office of Religious and Volunteer Services for the county’s jails.

Gamboa acknowledged that only about 20 people are listed as Jewish volunteers, most of whom come to the jails “every blue moon.” He says funding of chaplains isn’t necessary when some religions — like the Christian faiths — have dozens or hundreds of volunteers. According to Gamboa, “Half our chaplains don’t talk about religion. The inmates just want to talk about the pain and suffering they’ve gone through.”

But Rabbi Avivah Erlick says she has more prisoners on her visiting list (46) than she has time to see. Erlick was once a part-time jail chaplain supported by a grant from the Jewish Federation. But the grant wasn’t renewed due to “competing interests.” She now volunteers when she can because “I listen — I’m the only person who does. I went into chaplaincy because I feel so drawn to help people in crisis.”

On a recent trip to Men’s Central Jail, she spoke individually with prisoners in the hall, discussions lasting from two to 20 minutes. Afterward, each was offered a prayer book with Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox adaptations Erlick proudly made herself.

For one prisoner recovering from surgery, Erlick prayed the mi sheberach (the Jewish prayer of healing) in Hebrew. Another prisoner — a Jewish man from Iran — requested a tefillin (a ritual object worn around one’s arm during prayer). “It keeps me in place, with my people,” the man said. He explained he had been using toilet paper in place of the tefillin.

The Muslim community faces similar challenges, according to Muslim volunteer chaplain Maria Khani. “I’m not Superwoman,” Khani said. “I love my job. I love it so much, but I need help. And we don’t have dedicated people to do that yet.” Khani often begins at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility before dawn, wearing her black hijab and pushing a cart from which she hands out religious materials. Some prisoners called out “Salaam Alaikum.” Another prisoner pulled a Quran from a yellow bag attached to his wheelchair, which Khani encouraged him to read. “It gives you a sense of peace so you will not be overwhelmed by things happening around you,” she said, handing him prayer beads.

Writer’s note: San Bernardino, Riverside, Santa Clara, and Fresno Counties invest hundreds of thousands of dollars to have chaplains on staff. Also, chaplain’s visits have obviously been clearly impacted by the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.