10/24/2012 09:48 EDT | Updated 12/24/2012 05:12 EST

Prison Chaplain Cutbacks Condemned In Open Letter

Pressure is building for Ottawa to reverse its decision to eliminate part-time prison chaplains across the country.

In a cost-cutting move revealed by CBC News in early October, 49 chaplains' contracts are not being renewed.

Now, 17 of the remaining 71 full-time prison chaplains have signed a letter to the federal government, asking that it reconsider the decision.

The chaplains say they’re particularly concerned about non-Christian inmates not receiving religious counsel in their own faiths and the potential effects on their rehabilitation.

“It may not have been intended to be, but it appears to be discriminatory and that's not what we believe Canadian society to be,” said Lloyd Bruce, a New Brunswick United Church minister who was among the signatories.

The cuts will leave one full-time non-Christian prison chaplain on the government payroll. Before the cuts, there were also 18 part-time non-Christian chaplains.

Bruce said the decision is already creating problems, with some contracts already eliminated and the rest expiring in the months ahead.

“Taking away professional chaplains of other world faith traditions is taking away hope from others who are struggling to turn their lives around,” said Bruce.

The moderator of the United Church of Canada, Rev. Gary Paterson, called on his Canadian congregations to support the protest.

"I think it behooves us as Christians to stand with those of other faiths and say: 'No, we're all in this together,'" Paterson said.

Many religious groups — Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Jewish and others — have also lined up to condemn the cuts.

Charmaine Mak was a part-time Buddhist chaplain whose contract wasn't renewed.

Mak said that to expect the remaining chaplains to explain the intricacies of Buddhism isn't realistic.

"If someone shows up with a book that says Buddhism for Dummies, that's the level of spiritual depth they're going to get," said Mak.

Dozens of complaints

Advocate D.J. Larkin, of the Office of Prisoners' Legal Services in Abbotsford, B.C., said that so far, she's heard complaints about the cuts from more than 30 prisoners.

“We're being contacted daily by clients who are feeling completely devastated, they're demoralized,” Larkin told CBC News.

“We have a client who's living in segregation right now who says he has no one to go to, he has no one to talk to, he's completely cut off from access to even a prayer mat to pray on.”

Larkin said her organization has also written the government, saying the cuts are discriminatory and a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

She said if there's no response, legal action is likely.

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The decision to cancel the contracts was made by Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, who said it will save Canadian taxpayers $1.3 million and that many part-time Christian chaplains were also cut.

Toews said the full-time chaplains will have the help of 2,500 volunteers across the country, representing all faiths.

Bruce said counting on voluntary help isn’t good enough.

"Volunteers are very well-meaning, they come with all kinds of gifts and skills," said Bruce. "But they don't have the pastoral care skills, they may not have the education or the professional training that will assist them in dealing with individuals with complicated needs."

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