Federal government ends non-Christian prison chaplain contracts

The Canadian government’s recent decision to cancel its contracts with non-Christian prison chaplains has many law and human rights experts worried that the rights of religious prisoners are at risk of being violated.

This month the federal government announced that as of March 2013 only about 80 full-time chaplains would continue to work in the federal prison system. All but one identify as Christian. Non-Christian prisoners will be expected to receive religious counseling from one of the 80 left on staff acting as “interfaith” chaplains.

Conservative MP Candice Bergen defended the contract terminations in the House of Commons, characterizing the plan as an attempt to cut costs for taxpayers. She also compared the interfaith chaplain system to that used in the Canadian Army.

“The Canadian Forces have used this type of chaplaincy program for years. If it is good enough for our armed forces, then it is good enough for inmates in our federal penitentiaries,” said Bergen.

Minister of Public Safety Vic Toews, who is responsible for overseeing Canada’s prison system, also released a statement on the decision to do away with non-Christian chaplains.

In an email to CBC news from Toews’ office, a media relations employee of Toews’ wrote, “the government [ . . . ] is not in the business of picking and choosing which religions will be given preferential status through government funding. The minister has concluded [ . . . ] chaplains employed by Corrections Canada must provide services to inmates of all faiths.”

The email also states, “the Minister strongly supports the freedom of religion for all Canadians, including prisoners.”

Although the removal of non-Christian prison chaplains is being defended by the Conservative government as an attempt to demonstrate religious impartiality, many law experts have said that the cuts violate prisoner’s rights.

Debra Parkes, an associate professor of law at the U of M commented, “most legal experts who work in this area agree that the decision to de-fund chaplaincy services for minority religious groups violates both the equality guarantee in s. 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the prohibition against discrimination in the provision of services in the Canadian Human Rights Act.”

Lisa Kerr, a lawyer and doctoral candidate at New York University, argues that the 1992 Corrections and Conditional Release Act puts an onus on the government to not only allow, but to facilitate, religious practice by inmates.

“Section 75 says that an inmate is ‘entitled to reasonable opportunities to freely and openly participate in, and express, religion or spirituality.’ Prior to the Harper government, both the CSC [Correctional Service of Canada] and the federal government understood that to mean there is a positive duty to provide religious services in the prison context [ . . . ] I would argue that if you imprison someone, a duty arises to facilitate religious life in order for freedom of religion to actually exist [ . . . ] freedom of religion means the state has a positive duty to provide what is required to engage in religious life.” 

The decision may also violate rights protected in certain sections of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well. Kerr notes that section 2 of the charter guarantees the right to religious freedom.

This guarantee “must be interpreted in context,” says Kerr. An environment such as prison translates to “a positive duty on the part of the Correctional Service to facilitate religious contact and practice.” Restricting the religious services available to the degree outlined by the federal government may seriously inhibit the ability of some to adequately practice their religions in jail.

When asked about the government’s assurance that volunteer chaplains will still be permitted to visit prisons, Kerr points out that such an arrangement does not meet the standard of equality in the delivery of services, which is protected in the Canadian Human Rights Code, section 5.

“Only Christian prisoners will receive religious counsel directly from regular paid employees, who will be in a position to build ongoing relationships with those prisoners. Only Christian chaplains will have prison offices and everyday access to all prisoners [ . . . ] Volunteers are more likely to attend on an occasional basis, and will not have the benefit of standing security clearance.”

Another concern raised by many has been the impact chaplain job cuts might have on the rehabilitation of religious prisoners, many of whom see their spirituality as a fundamental aspect of preparing for re-integration into society.

David Koschitzky, chair of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, recently articulated this concern to CBC News.

“It is no stretch to say that chaplains are at the forefront of the rehabilitation process, and work every day to ensure that inmates awaiting release have the tools they need to avoid re-offending [ . . . ] While this is a matter of protecting freedom of religion, there is also an important aspect of public safety at stake in this decision.”
Currently about 12.5 per cent of inmates in federal prisons identify themselves as followers of non-Christian religions.

Contracts with aboriginal elders will be unaffected by the government decision.