06/15/2014 05:00 EDT | Updated 08/15/2014 05:59 EDT

Privatizing the prison chaplain: A view from the inside

For most of us, our primary — perhaps only — experience with prison chaplains is through movies or television, where they're usually portrayed as sombre purveyors of quick slices of advice. The reality is that prison chaplains have a demanding and essential job, providing counselling to inmates, being an advocate for their rehabilitation and seeing to their spiritual needs.

The job of a prison chaplain is also one that's changing and becoming more challenging.

The federal government's tough-on-crime agenda has translated into stiffer sentences and tougher parole criteria. That has led to rising populations within prisons, which means more crowding and double-bunking.

The result, critics say, is increased tension, low morale and more violence in prisons. There's also less attention paid to rehabilitation and preparation for life on the outside.

In 2012, the Conservative government decided to change the way chaplaincy services are provided. It ended the contracts for about 50 part-time non-Christian chaplains in 2012, arguing that Christian chaplains could attend to the needs of adherents of any religion, with the help of volunteers.

Under fierce criticism for that move, the government opted instead to privatize the prison chaplaincy.

Kairos Pneuma Chaplaincy Inc., a private company started by a few current and former federal prison chaplains, won a $2 million contract last year to provide spiritual services in federal prisons.

Kate Johnson is a Quaker and the former chaplain of the Pittsburgh Institution, a minimum security prison north of Kingston, Ont. Known inside the jail by the nickname "Skypilot," she looks back on her work in the Pittsburgh Institution with pride.

"It’s a huge privilege when the inmates trust you, because there's not a lot of trust inside a prison,” Johnson told CBC Radio’s Michael Enright.  

"My observation is that men have a different way of dealing with their feelings," she said. "It’s hard for them to be honest about fear or loneliness, about the concerns they might have about their children. Hearing those fears puts the chaplain in a very privileged position."

In addition to spiritual counselling, Johnson helped prisoners prepare to re-enter the community, explained visiting processes to families, and did a lot of basic troubleshooting. She consulted with parole officers, coordinated a team of 75 volunteers and worked with inmates’ families - many of whom were the victims of the inmates’ crimes.

Johnson says due to the increase in the prison population at the Pittsburgh Institution (it went from 175 to 326 while she was there), there was a two-week waiting period to get to see her.

“Double-bunking — two inmates sharing a cell — adds a lot more stress," she said. "People need privacy. The pressure on the prisoners was immense. You can see it in the men’s faces."

Leaving prison

Eventually, Johnson decided to leave the prison — in part because of burnout and the decision to privatize prison chaplain services.

"It seems to me the decision was based on ignorance and an attempt to save face. I am hoping that chaplaincy isn't the thin edge of the wedge," she said.

"There are other signs that make me quite nervous. The double-bunking, the lengthening of sentences - even though the evidence tells us that what we want to do is to hold people accountable, but get people back into the community and functioning as soon as possible. I can't make sense of that, when we're talking about wanting less harm in our society."

Johnson adds that the goal of incarceration should be to give inmates the opportunity for self-reflection, and help them come out with good social skills so that they can fit back into society.

"Instead what we're doing is cramming them all in there together for as long as we can."

Johnson says the current policies are making the jobs of everyone who works inside our prisons much more difficult.

"The deficit-reduction action plan has been absolutely brutal for corrections staff. It is making staff jobs all that much more difficult -- and it's already hard enough," she said. "Most people in Corrections have a real concern for public safety. They want to do what makes sense. They have educations in criminology and they know what good correctional practices are. To be working against what they know is best, is demoralizing.

"I think the hardest part was seeing the way victims' needs are being co-opted to serve a political agenda. We're talking about longer sentences as though that does something to care for victims; I don't think it does.”

Johnson made victims’ rights a focal point of her chaplaincy, helping inmates understand and take responsibility for the impact of their crimes upon their victims. And, she says, victims’ rights are respected when convicts are made more empathic and less likely to re-offend.

Despite her concerns, Johnson sees several potential benefits to the privatization of prison chaplaincy.

"It’s important to have chaplains at arms’ length from the institution, because sometimes a chaplain's role is to ‘speak truth to power.’ If a private entity then can employ them somewhere else if they have outworn their welcome at one prison, then that's potentially a good thing.”

She also believes that the people who make up Kairos Pneuma Chaplaincy have, "good hearts," and that contracting out the chaplaincy services may help equalize the pay and benefits of chaplains, who previously were all paid differently depending on the church they worked for.

Despite having left the job, Johnson is passionate about the need for prison chaplains.

“You are there primarily for the inmates. Most offenders are also victims. That doesn't mean that we feel sorry for them; but we do offer them enough compassion. The Quaker holding that everyone is equal means that the prisoner is just as sacred as I am, or anyone else in the society, in terms of advocating for them."

[Listen to the full conversation between Kate Johnson and The Sunday Edition's Michael Enright on CBC Radio One on June 15, in the third hour of The Sunday Edition or in the link at the top-left of this page.]