Inmates “with a known nexus to international or domestic terrorism” are leading worship services in some federal prisons because of a shortage of approved chaplains, according to a Department of Justice inspector general report released Wednesday.
At one U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP) facility, an “al-Qaeda affiliated inmate, who was convicted on terrorism charges, was permitted to lead services on a frequent basis,” the report from Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz states. The chaplain there said the inmate was chosen by other prisoners “due to his extensive faith knowledge and Arabic fluency.”
Mr. Horowitz‘s audit also found that “terrorist inmates” at one facility had led worship services, even though a BOP-contracted “faith contractor” was on the payroll.
The inspector general found two other facilities where inmates with connections to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, or the al-Shabab terrorist group, were allowed to lead worship services. One of the terrorist-connected inmates did so “on a regular basis,” the report stated.
In his report, Mr. Horowitz notes that there are only 236 chaplains to serve more than 160,000 federal inmates and that two-thirds of U.S. Bureau of Prison facilities are not meeting staffing minimums, forcing some prisons to turn to “alternatives that pose enhanced risks.”
In a video message announcing the report, Mr. Horowitz said those alternatives include “inmate-led services and reliance on minimally vetted volunteers. Of particular concern is when high-risk inmates lead religious services because such inmates can potentially misuse services to encourage violent behavior, radicalize other inmates, or engage in otherwise prohibited activity. In fact, at four of the 12 institutions we visited, we found that inmates incarcerated for terrorism-related offenses or with known connections to terrorist organizations we permitted to lead services.”
According to the audit, inmates at two different federal prisons objected to the “ideology” of a contracted faith provider hired by the bureau. Two convicted terrorists were leading worship services at one prison instead of the hired contractor; at the other prison, staff felt that allowing the contractor to lead worship could endanger that person’s safety and they stopped leading services there.
In each of the examples cited in the report, the terrorist-connected inmates and specific institutions were not identified.
Kenneth Gray, a senior lecturer at the University of New Haven’s Criminal Justice Department, expressed concern about the potential for radicalization during terrorist inmate-led worship services.
“When you have people, recruiting others for [terrorism] that concerns me,” said Mr. Gray, a 24-year veteran special agent with the FBI. “The person who is currently serving time and is in seeking spiritual guidance, and they receive spiritual guidance that in actuality is attempting to radicalize them to do something that they would not have normally done themselves, had they not received that encouragement that does concern me.”
In addition, Mr. Horowitz said his office “found a lack of diversity” in the BOP’s chaplain corps: 84% of chaplains are Protestants, although only 34% of inmates identify as such. He said “at least 16 faith groups” had no chaplains serving BOP facilities, and that Catholic and Muslim clergy “were substantially underrepresented” in the prison bureau.
“Inmates paying their debt to society should not lose their right to participate in worship services simply because they are behind bars,” Edward Ahmed Mitchell, an attorney and deputy executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), said in response to the audit.
“The lack of diversity in prison chaplaincy is not particularly surprising, but it is a solvable problem,” Mr. Mitchell said. “The Bureau of Prisons should make a concerted effort to recruit full-time or volunteer chaplains of various faith backgrounds to serve incarcerated inmates. The large number of incarcerated people who embrace Islam and turn their lives around in prisons should be able to benefit from Muslim chaplains, just as inmates of other faiths do.”
But the Rev. Deacon John Tomandl, president of the American Correctional Chaplains Association, asserted that any qualified chaplain can support the spiritual needs of any inmate, regardless of affiliation.
“A chaplain’s job is to hold your pain with you, not for you, and to walk one mile with you, so that you understand how much God cares about you, how much God loves you, and how valuable as a human being you are no matter what lousy decisions you’ve made in life,” Mr. Tomandl said. “A chaplain is a chaplain to anyone.”
The inspector general audit also found “inadequate control” of prison chapel libraries as well as poor monitoring of chapel spaces.
The “BOP staff does not maintain adequate control over the chapel materials due to its poorly maintained library database and the inability to adequately screen foreign language materials,” the audit found.
Such deficiencies “increase the risk that content advocating violence and religious extremism is introduced into BOP facilities,” DOJ said, noting that four of 12 facilities visited had prohibited content in chapel libraries.
Also discovered were “apparent inappropriate telephone contact between inmates and volunteer faith providers,” a violation of Bureau of Prisons policy. There is also poor tracking of terminated and disciplined volunteers, which “created a risk” of those people surfacing at other prisons “without detection,” the inspector general said.
The report said the prisons bureau should take steps to recruit more, and more diverse, chaplains for prisons, and consider an “age waiver” to attract more candidates, as well as expand opportunities for those who might be excluded under current educational or pastoral experience requirements.
The BOP should “address the security weaknesses” found in the chaplain system, including the installation of remote video and audio monitoring equipment and reexamine its prohibitions on such recordings. The goal, DOJ said, would be “to help ensure that religious services are monitored to the greatest extent possible and are not misused by some inmates to engage in prohibited conduct.”
The report also calls for a better chapel library system, including improved evaluation of foreign language media; improve oversight of chaplaincy service volunteers; and “take steps to better support existing chaplaincy services staff” including the leveraging of existing resources and technology, such as live streams to replace “riskier options such as inmate-led services” that would require monitoring.
“A robust program for religious services can help ensure that the Constitutional rights of inmates are protected while maintaining the safety and security of BOP institutions,” Mr. Horowitz said.
The Bureau of Prisons said it accepted the inspector general’s recommendations in its formal response to the report.