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  • Lia Kornmehl

The Doors God Can’t Open: Observations of Chaplaincy in Prisons and Jails


A row of cells in the Alcatraz Prison, New York City. Photo Credit: "Inside Alcatraz Cell Block - Textured" by danmiami is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.


“Don’t let this place eat you up.” 


That was the concluding advice I, and a handful of other volunteers-in-training, received in a jailhouse conference room in Maine, USA in 2023 from Matthew, our friendly but solemn officer-instructor. Walking around the jail that first night, eyes partially blinded by the fluorescent lights bouncing off the maze of bare white walls, Matthew’s counsel became harder to internalise by the second. I knew from conversations with experienced chaplains over my two years of ethnographic research that following Matthew’s recommendations was going to be easier said than done. 


"Prisons and jails are designed to consume all who enter, either via the booking process or past the reception desk, and strip each person down to their most basic identity: free or captive. While veteran chaplains have thicker skin and a bench of experience from which to draw stability and perspective, for those incarcerated, the prison or jail becomes a compacted world unto itself."

Yet, as several chaplains all plainly elucidated during our conversations, the body does not forget the shock of that initial digestion into the system upon one’s first entrance. In the months I volunteered as a Chaplain Intern (my official title), I reckoned with the privilege of my freedom every time I passed through a heavy iron door.


There exists, quite obviously, a large emotional and physical chasm between being incarcerated and researching incarceration. I have never encountered the criminal legal system outside of my observational capacity; I do not have firsthand, bodily knowledge of the violence of mass incarceration, a system which currently holds nearly 1.9 million people in the United States. [1] Even so, I was a grateful benefactor of the experience, wisdom, and personal reckonings of chaplains and incarcerated persons across the country, who daily negotiate movement, confinement, and religious and spiritual meaning-making. The following vignettes, I hope, will convey the complexity of inter- and intra-personal meaning-making in and around carceral spaces, while such spaces––in many cases violently––persist. 


Building the Prison, Building the Prison Chaplain


The modern prison, foreboding and austere, has been in the making for over 250 years. Chaplains and religious leaders were instrumental in forming the correctional landscape in the nascent United States. From roughly the late-seventeenth through mid-nineteenth centuries, Christian reverends dictated prison and jail policies, including prisoner schedules and disciplinary standards. Amid a nationwide prioritisation of secular psychological counselling and enhanced surveillance technologies in the late-nineteenth century, the chaplain’s responsibilities and reach likewise shifted. Today, chaplains are only one part of layered prison and jail administrations, paperwork-laden alongside secular law enforcement colleagues. However, despite funding and staffing challenges, religion is ever-present in carceral facilities, both through chaplaincy work and the presence of religious denominations which maintain large followings among those imprisoned, including Christianity, the Nation of Islam, and pagan traditions, among others. The Religious Land Use and Institutionalised Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) and First Amendment guarantees of free religious expression provide the legal, normative scaffolding within which chaplains, of many denominations and religious backgrounds, operate.


Although the modern correctional chaplain is no longer the sole arbiter of punishments, schedules, and facility policies, chaplains still have the legal right to exercise power over many facets of an incarcerated person’s life and experiences inside. I witnessed firsthand how chaplains preside over decisions on diets, clothing options, grooming regimens, available reading materials, volunteer allocations, and even housing. Chaplains exist, in many ways, in a socio-legal grey area, balancing how religious and secular legal standards should inform and supersede one another. As such, they are often left to negotiate what allowances fall under the First Amendment and RLUIPA protections and what privileges are extraneous to these laws. While a growing body of precedent, cases pioneered largely by Black Muslim and evangelical Christian incarcerated men, does exist to provide some framework for chaplains’ decisions, policy consistency from facility to facility varies widely. Indeed, even the chaplain’s capacity to make such decisions, namely, having access to religion-specific materials, is far from guaranteed. Outside of omnipresent Bibles, the types of religious materials any given jail or prison owns and distributes is often down to the generosity of local volunteers. Non-Christian items, including prayer rugs, holy books, garments, and ritual objects, can be few and far between. Within the correctional ecosystem, then, the chaplain can be a conduit of materials, religious guidance, spiritual comfort, and legally-guaranteed rights—should they so choose. 


Between Observance and Observant


On a memorably warm day in the Maine winter of 2023, the head chaplain of the jail asked me to visit an Orthodox Jewish man, here with the pseudonym of Jonah, who was recently transferred to the county jail from a facility in a different Northeastern state. He was, then, in the process of trying to convince the facility’s administrators to allow him to wear his kippah, a small head covering traditionally worn by Jews in deference to God's position and power above and over the Jewish people. Across his incarceration in multiple states, he had already secured rights to wear tzitzyot: thin, white, and intricately knotted tassells which hang from a ceremonial white garment worn under men’s shirts. After ringing Jonah’s individual room—a newly sanitised name for a cell—he walked down the housing block’s stairs, looked me up and down, and immediately asked: “Are you Jewish?” When I responded that I was, he visibly relaxed. “Oh,” he said with a sigh, “so you understand.” 


Over the course of our twenty-minute conversation, Jonah showed me a list he had made of several court cases in districts across the country in which the correctional facility was ordered by a judge to allow men to wear kippot and tzitzyot, as well as a case where a Muslim man had successfully won the right to wear a kufi, an equivalent head covering. His main barrier, common among those incarcerated trying to attain ritual and ceremonial objects, was the jail’s argument of preserving safety and security. Jonah described how he had told several levels of administration that he would be willing to submit to random security cheques. For Jonah, ensuring he wasn’t hiding anything under the cap would be as simple as asking him to quickly take it off his head. No matter that he was already allowed essentially ropes on his person at all hours. A head covering was, allegedly, too much of a risk.


This was the first moment in my experience at the jail where I was directly asked to intervene in petitioning prison officials on behalf of someone imprisoned. Jonah appealed to our mutual religiosity: I got why a kippah was more than just a hat. I got why this policy was not only inhumane but also illegal. But, as with all requests made in the context of incarceration, resolving Jonah’s problem was not as simple as understanding it. 


My first stop for everything on the inside was the chaplain. A warm, nearly-universally respected figure in the jail, he approached the topic in good faith. He asked me to elaborate at length on the symbolism of the kippah and why the opportunity for prayer wasn’t satisfactory for Jewish practise. Over the next half hour, I melded my scholarly knowledge of chaplaincy with my personal experiences of religion, trying to strike the elusive balance between educating, listening, and proving legal responsibility. At the end of our conversation, with a small page of notes, the chaplain promised to take the case directly to the jail’s captain, the top brass. 


I thanked him for listening. 


To this day, I do not know what happened. These sorts of requests are sometimes fulfilled instantly. Others often require several months––months that I did not have in my short volunteer timeline. Jonah may have been transferred, or perhaps he is still there, chipping away at administrative boundaries and researching more precedent for his case. All the same, the two conversations I had that day continue to ring in my head. While I appreciate that I might have been at the right place at the right time, even just to provide Jonah with the satisfaction and comfort of an empathetic audience, the experience reminds me of just how far the dark spectre of “security” stretches and what it may justify, reasonably or illegally.


"Under the carceral system, opportunities for material change that do not just bolster the paradigm of discipline are few and far between. It remains to be seen whether the intermittent glimpses and moments of human connection and care can work to dismantle the very policed systems in which they exist."

Photo Credit: "What's left of the prison yard" by Paucal is licensed under CC BY-NC.ND 2.0.


The Doors God Can’t Open


Halfway through an American Correctional Association Sunday morning church service, the director of a prison ministry outreach publication walked up to the podium. In a ringing voice, she began her testimony: “There is no door God can open that man can shut!” 


Her proclamation, immediately followed by a chorus of “Amen!” and “Yes, Lord!” glorified the superior powers of strength and movement possessed by, in this case, the specifically Christian God. Yet, the sentiment disregarded the ability of many in the room, who worked either for or within the correctional system, to not only shut but also lock thousands of thick steel doors. 


"Where was this God, then, who had the power to open metaphysical doors but intentionally decided to keep those very tangible doors tightly shut? Did I buy the argument that a godly door was more important to open than a physical one?" 

Her sentiment weighed on my mind every time my badge buzzed open one of the said doors throughout the Maine county jail. As a Chaplain Intern, I did not have unlimited access within the facility, especially in the high security areas. Many, many doors lay outside of my reach. Moreover, given the fact that my conversations always took place within housing units, I could count on one hand the number of times I had ever opened a door through which an incarcerated person could walk. 


Closed doors are, in many cases, the least of an incarcerated person or community’s worries. Harsh, unflinching programmes of discipline, legal injustices, unclear court proceedings, a culture of unabated conflict and abuse between those incarcerated and officers—each of these daily realities contribute to the pain of the carceral environment. Looking towards a period where our society can rid ourselves of said environment, I offer that the correctional chaplain––sometimes very powerful and other times quite modest–– might be a worthy bridge between God(s), doors, and the imprisoned to provide the necessary care, compassion, and opportunities for human agency that can help see us through to that brighter, more just future.



The views expressed in this piece are solely those of the author(s) and do not reflect those of the Editorial Board, the Scholars’ Council, the Gates Cambridge Trust or the University of Cambridge.


 
  1. Wendy Sawyer and Peter Wagner, “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2023,” Prison Policy Initiative, March 14, 2023, https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2023.html#:~:text=Together%2C%20these%20systems%20hold%20almost,centers%2C%20state%20psychiatric%20hospitals%2C%20and


Lia Kornmehl ['23] is MPhil student in Theology, Religion, and Philosophy of Religion researching how clergy and religious organisations might ameliorate electoral violence and communal conflict in Northern India.

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