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Audit Reveals Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Chaplaincy Services Branch Critically Depleted

by Casey J. Bastian

The Office of the Inspector General completed an audit of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) Chaplaincy Services Branch (CSB) in July 2021. The CSB is responsible for the BOP’s religious services nationwide. The program is intended to ensure that the constitutional right of prisoners to practice religion is protected. Almost 70 percent of the BOP prisoner population identifies with a particular faith group or tradition.

The audit revealed that the CSB is so depleted that a mere 236 personnel are serving more than 150,000 prisoners. This results in only eight of the 26 recognized faith groups being represented. The audit concluded that “a significant shortage in the number of chaplains and other chaplaincy services staff impairs the BOP’s ability to implement a safe and effective religious services program.”

The audit identified five key areas requiring improvement and policy updates to help ensure prisoners’ access to religious services as well as the safety and security of the institutions. As well as identifying the current deficiencies, the audit offered several recommendations to alleviate those problems. On May 21, 2021, the BOP adopted several of the recommendations while promising to implement those changes in a reasonable amount of time. A target date of no later than the end of fiscal year (FY) 2022 has been set for most changes.

The first recommendation is to address chaplaincy shortages and lack of diversity among represented faith groups. This can be done by reassessing chaplaincy educational requirements, reconsidering the current age restrictions, and reviewing the Chaplain Trainee Program model to expand available hiring opportunities. The BOP responded by writing that the recommendations will result in presenting “draft policy to the National Union by the end of FY 2021” for approval.

The second recommendation is to address the security issues arising from the BOP’s “understaffed, overburdened, and diversity-challenged chaplaincy.” The audit report suggests the policy on prisoner-led services should be modified to prevent prohibited prisoners from doing so. The BOP will also increase monitoring equipment within the chapel areas of the institution and reexamine current prohibitions against monitoring in accordance with any governing law.

Finally, the BOP should establish new security procedures for faith group lockers located in the chapel areas to prevent unauthorized materials becoming available to the prisoners. A report by the Detroit Free Press noted that of the dozen prisons included in the audit, three prisons where investigators inspected storage lockers reserved for religious materials resulted in locating prohibited items, including information that “advocated violence and extremist beliefs...” and “documents and images advocating white supremacy.”

The third recommendation is to ensure robust chapel libraries. This might be done through a comprehensive review of the Chapel Library Database (CLD) within the CSB. This will ensure an accurate inventory of appropriate resources, including foreign language materials, that have not been previously reviewed and included in the CLD. The BOP shall also establish clear guidance for the handling of materials deemed inappropriate for prisoner use.

The fourth area of improvement is to overhaul the insufficient religious volunteer vetting process. This will allow the BOP to ensure that the volunteer information is accurate. The BOP should conduct analysis of volunteer contact information periodically to ensure that the volunteers are aware of the policy on prohibited conduct. The audit identified four examples of serious violations of the current policy on unauthorized contact. This will ensure increased scrutiny to monitor similar unapproved contact.

The fifth recommendation is for the BOP to provide better support for the current chaplaincy services staff so that those staff may focus their attention on the primary duties as required by policy. The audit report provides four specific acts for this issue. The CSB is to develop a strategy to strengthen its volunteer ranks, develop a strategy to avoid staffing shortages arising from anticipated leaves of absence, centralize the primary responsibilities to increase awareness of issues the chaplains might face, and use existing technologies to provide solutions to alternative religious services. 



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