Jewish chaplains and clergy from other minority faiths have returned to prisons in Canada — at least temporarily — after a six-month struggle backed by the New Jersey-based National Association of Jewish Chaplains.
Citing budget cuts, the Canadian government in September 2012 removed all but 72 Christian and two Muslim chaplains serving the country’s prisons; 49 chaplains from minority faiths were dismissed.
After an outcry from Canadian faith groups, prisoners’ rights organizations, and the Whippany-based chaplains’ group, the government agreed on April 10 to reinstate the 49 chaplains for a 90-day period.
During that time, the government said, it will create a “new service model,” contracting with a private agency to supply chaplains to the prisons.
“The fact that chaplaincy services for minorities are reinstated, even on a contingency basis, is good,” NAJC executive director Cecille Asekoff wrote in an April 17 e-mail to NJ Jewish News. “The initial thought process of denying religious rights to minorities is not good. We, as professional chaplains, will stand behind our colleagues in Canada and anywhere else.”
D.J. Larkin, an attorney with Prisoners' Legal Services Society in British Columbia, told NJJN she was “somewhat optimistic” that the new model would be an inclusive one.
During the six months that most non-Christian prisoners had no chaplains, she said, “there was an atmosphere of intolerance that was building up and making people very upset. It was increasing tensions in the institutions.”
Larkin said a Jewish client told her that a fellow prisoner had targeted him with anti-Semitic statements and firebombed his cell. “The inmate feels that if he had consistent access to a rabbi, the rabbi could have been advocating with Correctional Services to have him separated from the assailant,” she said.
Rabbi Gary Friedman, chair of Jewish Prisoner Services International and communications director of the American Correctional Chaplains Association, welcomed the news but was cautious.
“I am not so sure there is a resolution” to the problem, he said. He is especially worried that an evangelical Christian organization called the Good News Jail & Prison Ministry, based in Virginia, could become the new chaplaincy provider in Canada under the “new service model.”
“They proselytize and they obstruct others faiths' practices,” said Friedman in an April 18 phone interview from his office in Seattle. He hears more complaints about Good News’ behavior “from other Christian denominations than I do from other faith groups,” he said.
Larkin, the prisoners’ rights attorney, said her group is aware of concerns over proselytizing by Christian providers. “We will be monitoring the implementation of the new system to ensure that does not become the case,” she said
“We do not currently have any Canadian chaplains, and we do not proselytize, that is for sure,” said a spokeswoman for the Good News ministry. “We facilitate the religious needs of all the prisoners, no matter what their faith may be.”
Cantor Michael Zoosman, a former prison chaplain in British Columbia, said the temporary solution “is better than having no chaplains at all. A lot of questions are still in the air.”
“But at the very least,” said Zoosman, now a hospital chaplain in the Washington, DC, area, “the government of Canada is now aware that this is a big problem and there is an international outcry over the blanket cutting of all these positions.”