What It's Like to Be a Prison Chaplain

Before she became a prison chaplain, Kelly Raths was in school to become a massage therapist. She had gotten a degree in divinity from Harvard and had spent time working on kids’ programs at a Methodist church in Montana—“they prepared me well for working with inmates,” she said. Life intervened, and now, eight years later, she is an administrator in the Oregon Department of Corrections, working on inmate advocacy and community-building. For more than half a decade, though, she helped provide the spiritual-support system for the men in two medium- and maximum-security penitentiaries.

“In a prison setting, the way that people come to their faith—it’s kind of like whatever in any other context is normal, but it’s where you take all the dials and turn them up, kind of like a 1980s radio set,” she said. “There is an intensity to what is normal human behavior and interaction.”

When someone goes to prison, their life “on the outside” doesn’t stop. Moms still die. New nieces and nephews still get born. Raths said she often talked with inmates about these kinds of big life events, the stock-in-trade for pastors and rabbis and imams—only in prison, they come with extra baggage.

“I’ve had people start throwing up and pass out in my office, or [stay] very stonefaced,” she said. When prisoners get a call from the outside, sharing news of a death or break-up or other important life changes, their relationship with the person on the other end of the phone “is usually full of unspoken things,” she said. “It may knock them out, to think that I now have to deal with the reality of why I’m here, that I too may die here.”

For religious leaders, the job is often about creating a space for people: helping them find solace after loss, helping them figure out how they want to live. But Raths, who will be featured in a documentary about chaplains later this year, said that’s a very different process in prison. “My impulse, when someone in front of me is grieving deeply, my impulse is to touch, to console, maybe to embrace, to offer tea or phone calls. But in the commerce of the place I am at, I am not to touch, I am not to offer.”

This is one challenge that came up over and over again in our conversation: In ministering to prisoners, it can be very difficult to set boundaries. For example: As Raths was preparing to volunteer in a prison in Massachusetts, she read an article about outreach work written by Quaker women. One of their main pieces of advice? “Be prepared to be sexually aroused. When you walk into a men’s prison, it’s one of very few places, if not the only place, where you feel in complete power. People are drawn to you, and not just in sexual ways.”

Although even talking about such subjects may be uncomfortable, being open about these kinds of challenges is important, Raths said. Talking with people about intimate questions of faith can make it especially easy to slip past the specific, firm boundaries of prison relationships.

While learning how to set these boundaries was a very hard part of her job as a chaplain, Raths said, it was often even harder for volunteers. And there were lots and lots of volunteers, she said: “Prisons are great places to kind of get your numbers up.”

In books and movies and television shows, there’s a certain stereotype about religion in prisons—that people often find God from their cell. There have been a handful of high-profile cases of this in recent memory, like Karla Faye Tucker and Kelly Renee Gissendaner. The stereotype, Raths said, isn't entirely untrue. “Finding your God or goddess isn’t uncommon,” she said. But “one of our concerns was: Are you swapping out this religious experience for some other kind of addictive behaviors or avoidance behaviors? When given this kind of opportunity to build those relationships with folks, those are the kinds of things I would hopefully gently start to pry at.”

Although many prisoners may experience these kinds of religious awakenings—or at least, spiritual strugglings—a lot of others don’t, Raths said: “Prison is a hard place to become really vulnerable.” For people who have been convicted of a crime, and particularly violent crimes, the question of forgiveness is huge, and daunting. “There’s a physical body that experienced the harm that this person caused,” she said. “People who come to custody in prison, while they have been the offender, they almost without fail have also been the victims themselves.” Understanding that often has to come first, Raths said, but “the real, challenging question was: Can I forgive myself?”

These heavy questions were a big part of Rath’s job. But the thing that people talked about more, she said, was life: creating a sense of meaning. “A prison is a miniature city. You didn’t want to move to this town, but there’s a civic life to it,” she said. “We would talk a lot about the community in which you’re connected to.” She went on:

I’m not so keen on what we do in our country around prisons … It can and does go both ways. There are some folks who will go through our corrections system and leave it traumatized; they will leave it as a much more savvy criminal than they ever were before.

[But] there is this other group who, if they’re willing to be honest, they’ll tell you: The best day I’ve ever had in my life was a day I spent in prison. I am sober, and I am around thoughtful folks, and I’m making music. There’s an incredible espirit de corps.

It’s not the spiritual path you might expect. Then, no one expects to have to make a life in prison. But life goes on, and they do.