A prisoners’ rights group in B.C. is suing the federal government for allegedly violating the constitutional rights of non-Christian inmates by cancelling the contracts of 18 non-Christian chaplains at federal prisons.
Two Buddhists, two Wiccans, two Muslims, a Sikh and a Jewish believer say Corrections Canada is denying them reasonable access to religion and spirituality.
In October, the agency confirmed its plans to lay off 49 part-time chaplains — 31 of whom are Christians — who provided religious counsel to a variety of faiths. The layoffs, expected to take effect at the end of March, will leave British Columbia without a non-Christian chaplain.
The part-time chaplains are to be replaced with a mix of volunteers and the CSC’s 71 full-time Christian chaplains and two full-time Muslim chaplains.
“It is a pretty clear cut case on the basis of religion,” said D.J. Larkin, a staff lawyer with West Coast Prison Justice Society, which is representing eight current and former inmates in the case.
“What’s happening right now is there are Christian-based chaplains in B.C. There are no minority-based chaplains in B.C.”
Larkin says she has documented a number of cases where prisoners have requested religious counselling but have been unable to attain it.
Cantor Michael Zoosman was a part-time Jewish prison chaplain in B.C. who now works in Washington D.C.
He says religion can help people stay out of prison — saving money and helping them reintegrate into society.
“There’s a real opportunity for rehabilitation through spiritual connectedness that only chaplains can achieve,” Zoosman said.
“Minorities deserve the same access to that rehabilitation as majorities.”
With their lawsuit, the eight current and former inmates are asking that the Correctional Service of Canada reinstate and continue the contracts of the non-Christian chaplains in British Columbia.
The CSC wouldn’t comment on the lawsuit, but released a statement saying it is committed to respecting religious freedom.
The agency “will also continue to engage the voluntary support of our community partners to deliver chaplaincy services to offenders,” the statement read.
I agree with the prisoners on this. Laying off chaplains (who do a really important job in Corrections no matter what their faith background is) is a weird move but eliminating all of the part time positions that minister to minorities is even more mind boggling until you step back and realize that Vic Toews is the minister in charge.
I know a lot of offenders who have turned their lives around in jail and almost all of them have talked of their work with a chaplain. Cutting chaplaincy is a bizarre decision (they get paid like crap) but doing it this way is even worse. Perhaps Canada’s Office of Religious Freedom could take a look inside our borders on it’s way to protect religious freedom outside of our borders.