March 03 2024

Barbara A. McGraw, Saint Mary’s College, California

two men praying together at a prison in Nogales, Mexico

What is Messianic Judaism? Is it Christian or Jewish? Is a chapel with an altar and a cross that important to Protestants? Can’t they have their religious services in the prison housing units instead? What is a Wicca wand? Is it really a religious item? Is tobacco all that important to Native American religious practices in prison? Can an herb be substituted? What is Odinism? Is it a racist religion? Are other ethnic religions racist? What is the difference between Sunni and Shi’a Islam? Can the two groups practice together? Who are the Sikhs and why do Sikh inmates say that they must not cut their hair? With so many religions, how can prison officials accommodate religion in prisons in a fair and neutral way?

These are the sorts of questions that prison officials have asked since 2003 in prison chaplaincy directors programs sponsored by the American Academy of Religion at Annual Meetings. The program consists of a series of sessions where prison chaplaincy directors meet with prominent AAR scholar-experts. The format is casual, with each scholar providing a short overview of the religion of their expertise, followed by open dialogue among the directors and the scholars. A comparative religion and law scholar provides a prison religion law update as well.

Over the years, more than twenty-five leading scholars and prison chaplaincy directors from approximately twenty states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons have participated in the program. The directors come with thoughtful, intriguing questions, and the scholars have found the conversation to be an enriching experience. Scholars’ insights often have wide impact, as each of the directors is responsible for his or her whole state or, in the case of the United States, the entire Federal Bureau of Prisons. And some of the directors have been inspired to form an association in their own right—the National Correctional Chaplaincy Directors Association.