'I was in prison and you visited me ...'
January 17 2003 by Derek Hodges , BR Correspondent

'I was in prison and you visited me ...' | Friday, Jan. 17, 2003

Friday, Jan. 17, 2003

'I was in prison and you visited me ...'

By Derek Hodges BR Correspondent

Bill Hall isn't afraid of much. He's spent the last 30 years behind bars, not as a hardened criminal, but as a good-hearted chaplain. One thing he is afraid of, though, is losing his job, especially now.

Hall and the 35 other chaplains in the N.C. prison system have watched as some 30 of their colleagues have been released from service over the past two years alone. The moves came as officials in state government struggled to meet budgetary needs during a downturn in the economy.

Hall, a member of First Baptist Church of Morganton, serves as a chaplain at Western Youth Institute, a facility for offenders from the ages of 13 to 22. The facility has a capacity of around 740 inmates, though Hall said he has seen as many as 900 in the building. His "congregation" currently consists of about 700 inmates in close, medium and minimum security.

Through his experience in working for the prison system, Hall said he has seen the importance of the chaplaincy to the inmates and to the community. "Most of them were not raised in a Christian home," Hall said of the inmates to whom he ministers. "There's always that spark of wanting to know God. We just try to tell them, 'This might be what you're looking for.'"

To assist inmates in their search for God, prison chaplains coordinate and lead religious programming in the prisons, work to meet religious needs, and coordinate teams of volunteers from local churches that want to help in the ministry. They also provide crisis ministries to inmates that include breaking the news of a family death or illness - and the list goes on, Hall said, with a slightly weary smile.

Speaker of the N.C. House of Representatives Jim Black agrees that chaplains play a critical role in the lives of inmates and prisons, calling spiritual guidance "the most important part of the rehabilitation process. I'd be really ashamed of our state if they cut the chaplains out of the budget," Black said.

Black knows the situation the legislature and its appropriations committees must face. He cites cuts to state revenues made six years ago during an economic upswing for putting the budget into a tailspin now that times are tougher. The cuts, which included doing away with several key taxes, took nearly $1.6 million from the annual budget. Over the past two years, some of the state's efforts to make up the difference have come at the expense of prison chaplains.

Charlie Davis, interim director of Chaplaincy Services for the Department of Corrections, says there are currently only 35 full-time chaplains serving 33,319 inmates in 80 different correctional centers throughout North Carolina, a ratio of about one chaplain to every 1,000 inmates. Generally, prisons with less than 400 inmates have no chaplain on staff. Prisons with 400 to 700 inmates have one chaplain and prisons with 700 or more have two chaplains, Davis said.

Cuts made over the past few years, combined with rumors that appropriations committees in Raleigh are considering deeper cuts in the number of chaplains, have made some, like Hall, very nervous. "When chaplains are fired, religious programs basically die," he said. "There's nobody to speak for the inmates."

And it's not just the inmates' need for religious programming that keeps chaplains employed. As Hall put it, "Not all your constitutional rights are limited when you go to prison." Lawmakers debating the validity and/or necessity of chaplains in prisons have often cited a citizen's constitutional right to worship as they choose. Prison chaplains provide not only for Christian worship, but also for the celebration of other religions recognized by the prison system. The right to worship as one chooses, guaranteed, in part, by the work of America's early Baptists, is one that few volunteers can or will press for when there is no chaplain to facilitate their work, Hall said.

Baptist State Convention (BSC) president Jerry Pereira said he and other N.C. Baptists support the work of the chaplains. "Chaplains play such an important role in the life of prisoners," he said. While he and the voters at this year's state convention agreed on the wish to see chaplains stay, he said the convention has also taken steps to provide for ministries if the state should decide to cut the positions.

In November the convention voted to allow Pereira to appoint a board to study how the BSC could or would react if chaplains are cut from the state's budget. One proposed option involves raising money in local churches to support the chaplains' continued service. Unfortunately, chaplains supported by churches often spend as much time trying to raise money as they do ministering to inmates.

Pereira encouraged N.C. Baptists to urge lawmakers to keep the chaplains in the system. "Write letters," he said. "Our representatives can't know what's in our hearts unless we express it."

Hall agrees that concerned Baptists must do something to prevent the end of the prison chaplaincy in North Carolina. "The General Board has been silent too long," Hall said. "I would encourage North Carolina Baptists to lobby hard to keep chaplains in the prisons. Most of our inmates will be going home one day. The question is, 'Will there be something here to change them?'"

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1/17/2003 12:00:00 AM by Derek Hodges , BR Correspondent | with 0 comments
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