Prison can be a lonely, isolating place. But in some cases, it transforms prisoners completely.
For example, an inmate who was a self-declared white supremacist used to walk around the prison with a chip on his shoulder, rattling off racist remarks at the non-white inmates, recalls prison chaplain Habeeb Ali. But after observing Muslim inmates fasting during Ramadan, the inmate had some questions, Ali said. The questions eventually led him to the Qur’an, and from there, to an embrace of Islam.
“And now he himself is seen as a leader, helping the inmate population, being an inspiration to the Muslim community, and finding himself on better terms with his family,” said Ali, who is an Ontario-based prison chaplain.
For some inmates, religion is where they turn to cope with the temporary — and often not so temporary — loss of the life they once knew.
Former prison chaplain Yasin Dwyer says that faith is not only a source of stability for many inmates, but it’s also a way of preventing their return to crime once they are released. For more than a decade, the Winnipeg-born imam worked as a full-time Muslim chaplain in Canadian prisons, a job Dwyer believes is crucial to helping Muslim inmates stay on the right side of the law.
“The overwhelming majority of Muslim inmates who I worked with saw their religion as perhaps the most important part of their own transformation, or a major part of their correctional program. They really took their religion seriously. They wanted to understand what Islam is about and how Islam can transform their lives and their behaviour so that they can become functional citizens,” Dwyer said.
“Lots of inmates are born Muslims, and many of them have reformed themselves while in prison,” Ali noted.
“They’ve stopped drinking. They’ve stopped lying and cheating. They started praying, started fasting. Many of them that I’ve seen through the years have changed their lives around.”
While some inmates are born into Muslim families, others convert to Islam while incarcerated.
“Prison can be very alienating, very lonely, and there’s obviously time … to reflect on those really big questions, like the meaning of life. And when inmates ask those kinds of questions, they usually find themselves in the chapel. And they speak to chaplains, read religious scriptures and texts, and so many of them will come across the religion of Islam. And many of them will have a spiritual epiphany and they will become Muslim,” Dwyer said.
Dwyer and Ali have concerns — shared by prisoners and religious groups alike — about changes in recent years to the role of the prison chaplain that they say make the crucial service less effective and less accessible for prisoners.
When both Dwyer and Ali were hired as prison chaplains, the religious institutions and faith groups themselves hired chaplains. Muslim chaplains, at the time, were contracted by the Islam Care Centre. But in 2012, the Stephen Harper government announced it would cut funding to the chaplaincy program significantly. In 2013, it cancelled the contracts of all part-time non-Christian chaplains across the country. Remaining chaplains, two of which were non-Christian, were expected to act as “interfaith” chaplains.
The move was widely criticized, with one group of prisoners in B.C. launching a lawsuit.
The government opted to contract out chaplaincy services through a single company instead. This meant that the religious institutions were essentially removed from the equation, a move that Dwyer believes fundamentally compromises the quality of services provided.
Bridges of Canada, which is affiliated with the Florida-based Bridges International, is the company that currently holds the contract for the hiring of chaplains. In response to interview requests, Bridges of Canada referred Global News to Correctional Service Canada.
A CSC representative said that the new framework allows for a more streamlined process and allows the organization holding the chaplaincy contract (Bridges of Canada) to more easily accommodate the spiritual needs of a diverse inmate population. “This model provides the national service provider flexibility to respond to religious and spiritual needs represented by either large or small numbers of offenders. This is also a delivery model that responds to both the present and future multi-faith needs of a diverse offender population.”
In addition, a representative for CSC stated that it actively monitors and responds to the religious needs of the inmate population.
“CSC engages in ongoing evaluation and assessment to ensure offenders have access to spiritual services, which include full-time institutional chaplains who facilitate and support individual observance and relationships with offenders’ identified faith communities, the offender’s own identified faith community resource persons, local faith community leaders and volunteers and chaplaincy services specific to a particular religious tradition when required.”
Ali, however, says that not enough is being done. He cited a lack of resources as one of the main challenges of effective prison chaplaincy.
“Whatever the model, whatever the contract, I think we still have this major problem that we don’t have enough resources, we don’t have enough education, we don’t have enough support.”
Chaplains serve as counsellors and mentors to inmates, offering safe, independent and trusted spaces of support for them to talk about their challenges and fears. Chaplains, who exist in a realm separate from both inmates and prison staff, can also help prevent misconduct, especially towards minority and faith-based communities — but they have to physically be there to do it.
“When I was working with the Corrections Service of Canada, we made sure that all of the federal prisons in the region were hosting the Friday congregational prayer for those inmates who wanted to participate,” Dwyer said.
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The chaplains also arranged for pre-dawn and evening meals during the holy month of Ramadan for those who were fasting during the day. “And we were able even to organize Eid celebrations,” Dwyer added.
But the chaplains’ advocacy efforts are also to protect the prisoners from discrimination and Islamophobia.
“Prison is a microcosm of the outside, so on the outside there’s a lot of misunderstanding about what Islam is and what Islam is not. It would be expected that within a prison context, in a very polarizing context, you’d see evidence of the same,” Dwyer said.
In 2015, after at least three human rights complaints were launched by Muslim inmates, the National Council of Canadian Muslims called on CSC to investigate.
CBC reported in 2017 that inmate complaints over access to religious services were on the rise. NCCM’s communications coordinator Leila Nasr says that the organization still regularly receives complaints from Muslim inmates, and is again calling on the government to invest more into ensuring that their spiritual and religious rights are being attended to.
In response to questions by Global News that non-Christian prisoners are being underserved, CSC stated that it “is committed to respecting the religious freedom and right of expression of federal offenders of all faiths, and will continue to provide support and services to offenders of all religious backgrounds, as per the Corrections and Conditional Release Act and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
CSC noted that it also has guidelines in place for religious accommodations. CSC stated that it provides at least one full-time institutional chaplain for every institution to meet with offenders of all faiths and also makes telephone or video access available as needed.
“Our stance is that if the goal of corrections services is actually reintegration in society, prison inmates require a lot of support … and this has to include spiritual support and assistance,” Nasr said. “People refer to their spirituality in times of hardship, and cuts on resources like we’ve seen in recent years are therefore very detrimental to the inmates’ fundamental human rights and well-being, and to their ability to actually reintegrate,” Nasr said.
“We have to make sure religious communities are given the opportunity to invest in what is happening in the prison,” Dwyer agreed. “And we have to ask ourselves, is it a question of safety, if chaplaincy actually provides for safer communities, safer prisons, safer staff and safer inmates, then we just have to put our money where our mouth is. I believe the provision of chaplaincy service in prisons is actually not only a spiritual matter, it’s a public safety matter.”
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Minority communities, in particular, Ali said, bear the brunt of the current system’s insufficiencies.
“Chaplaincy is not merely active listening or sharing cookies at the Sunday service. There’s a lot of hard work that goes on in the background.… regardless of whoever’s in charge, we are still regarded as a minority. And the majority have inherited the main services, main resources, main chapel space, main chapel time..”
Editor’s note: this article originally stated that former prison chaplains Yasin Dwyer and Habeed Ali were hired by the National Council of Canadian Muslims. In fact, they were hired by the Islam Care Centre. Global News has corrected the error.