During my journey as a parent of an incarcerated loved one, I have discovered some interesting and perplexing things about Vermont‘s Department of Corrections. One of the most disappointing is the lack of chaplaincy in Vermont‘s facilities. When my loved one was first incarcerated, I was aware he was deeply depressed and needed support. While I am not necessarily religious, I have worked with prison chaplains over the last 10 years in different capacities. I’ve always found them to be interested in listening, and willing to give and receive messages to loved ones. They are often the only person who can go to restricted housing units and visit with inmates in a supportive capacity. They can bring in religious texts when needed.
When my loved one was held out of state the chaplain was my most trusted link to my loved one’s wellness. Fast forward to my first call to connect with the Vermont facility chaplain. The operator paused for a moment when I asked to speak to the chaplain and then said “sure, just a minute.” I remember feeling a small flame of hope. Thank goodness. Before I knew it a strong voice on the other end answered, “hello this is Officer Chaplin. How can I help you?” I quickly realized the misunderstanding and gave some answer about calling back later. Subsequently, after a few calls to the Roman Catholic diocese and the Muslim society of Vermont, I realized my fears were confirmed. There is no chaplaincy at any of the facilities in Vermont. Inmates have no consistent, day-to-day access to in-person spiritual or religious counsel. Any religious programming that occurs is done entirely by volunteers — and obviously, only if they are available, and on a very limited basis.
The vast majority of state prisons in the US have an on-staff chaplain. According to the Pew Research Center’s 50-State Survey of Prison Chaplains (2012), they perform a wide variety of tasks. More than nine-in-ten say they do each of the following: administer religious programs, work with external faith-based and community organization, personally lead worship services, religious instruction or spiritual counseling, advise correctional staff on religious issues and related policies, and supervise or train volunteers. Many of them also said that they communicated with family members of inmates and to inmates regarding family news, pastoral counseling, and recruiting and vetting volunteers and in-kind donations.
Vermont has no one filling these roles. In fact, although the only religious or spiritual presence in our facilities is provided by volunteers, it appears that no one actively recruits them. It is up to people in the community to step up to provide this service. And of course, during two years of Covid, no volunteers were allowed in, so in those two years there were no religious services, no spiritual counseling, and only now are volunteers slowly being allowed back into the facilities.
— Jen Canfield with Meg McCarthy