This is an interesting article from the Atlantic Magazine.
Before she became a prison chaplain, Kelly Raths was in school to become a massage therapist. She had gotten a degree in divinity from Harvard and had spent time working on kids’ programs at a Methodist church in Montana—“they prepared me well for working with inmates,” she said. Life intervened, and now, eight years later, she is an administrator in the Oregon Department of Corrections, working on inmate advocacy and community-building. For more than half a decade, though, she helped provide the spiritual-support system for the men in two medium- and maximum-security penitentiaries.
“In a prison setting, the way that people come to their faith—it’s kind of like whatever in any other context is normal, but it’s where you take all the dials and turn them up, kind of like a 1980s radio set,” she said. “There is an intensity to what is normal human behavior and interaction.”
When someone goes to prison, their life “on the outside” doesn’t stop. Moms still die. New nieces and nephews still get born. Raths said she often talked with inmates about these kinds of big life events, the stock-in-trade for pastors and rabbis and imams—only in prison, they come with extra baggage.
“I’ve had people start throwing up and pass out in my office, or [stay] very stonefaced,” she said. When prisoners get a call from the outside, sharing news of a death or break-up or other important life changes, their relationship with the person on the other end of the phone “is usually full of unspoken things,” she said. “It may knock them out, to think that I now have to deal with the reality of why I’m here, that I too may die here.”
For religious leaders, the job is often about creating a space for people: helping them find solace after loss, helping them figure out how they want to live. But Raths, who will be featured in a documentary about chaplains later this year, said that’s a very different process in prison. “My impulse, when someone in front of me is grieving deeply, my impulse is to touch, to console, maybe to embrace, to offer tea or phone calls. But in the commerce of the place I am at, I am not to touch, I am not to offer.”….
In books and movies and television shows, there’s a certain stereotype about religion in prisons—that people often find God from their cell. There have been a handful of high-profile cases of this in recent memory, like Karla Faye Tucker and Kelly Renee Gissendaner. The stereotype, Raths said, isn’t entirely untrue. “Finding your God or goddess isn’t uncommon,” she said. But “one of our concerns was: Are you swapping out this religious experience for some other kind of addictive behaviors or avoidance behaviors? When given this kind of opportunity to build those relationships with folks, those are the kinds of things I would hopefully gently start to pry at.”
Although many prisoners may experience these kinds of religious awakenings—or at least, spiritual strugglings—a lot of others don’t, Raths said: “Prison is a hard place to become really vulnerable.” For people who have been convicted of a crime, and particularly violent crimes, the question of forgiveness is huge, and daunting. “There’s a physical body that experienced the harm that this person caused,” she said. “People who come to custody in prison, while they have been the offender, they almost without fail have also been the victims themselves.” Understanding that often has to come first, Raths said, but “the real, challenging question was: Can I forgive myself?”
Retrieved August 18, 2015 from http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2015/08/helping-people-find-god-in-a-prison-cell/401414//