Should Prison Chaplains Be Vaccinated?
By: Dr. George Walters-Sleyon.
Dubbed the global pandemic of the 21st century, COVID-19 has killed over one million individuals worldwide. In the United States alone, over half a million Americans have died. While COVID-19 has caused significant sadness and socio-cultural, political, economic, religious, and existential implications, it has not spared the most vulnerable and exposed. COVID-19 has struck from the United States to Europe, Asia, North and South America, Africa, and the rest of the global community with its scars of despair.
This newsletter contends that prison chaplains should be listed as a priority group to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. The over 2.2 million prisoners in the United States and over 80,000 in the United Kingdom (Scotland, England and Wales, and Northern Ireland) are not exempt. Responding to the spiritual, pastoral, and religious needs of the imprisoned are over 1500 prison chaplains in the United States and 500 prison chaplains in the United Kingdom of diverse religious traditions.
Prison chaplains work in over 6,800 prison facilities (Federal, State, Local Jails, Juvenile detention facilities, and Immigration facilities) in the United States and over 125 prisons in the United Kingdom. With such an unusual amount of prisoners often referred to as “mass incarceration” coupled with the need to respond to their existential and pastoral needs, prison chaplains are constantly on the front line of the United States and the United Kingdom’s penal cultures.
COVID-19 has made their task and calling daunting. Called to care for those imprisoned for violent and non-violent crimes, justly or unjustly incarcerated, they make no distinction in responding to the pastoral needs of humanity caught in the complex tentacles of the modern penal systems of the United States and the United Kingdom. COVID-19 has posed particular challenges to their vocational and humanitarian calling. On the one hand, they must abide by social distancing restrictions and adapt to Zoom’s prison chaplaincy era. On the other hand, they have recognized the decline or lack of in-person visitations and strict prison management policies regarding visitation to prison facilities.
As a result of COVID-19 prison management restrictions, many implications have emerged. Prison chaplains and prisoners relationship has been impacted. The impact is reflected in the decline in prisoners receiving “immediate” spiritual care, including communion and participation in individual and community prayers. Nevertheless, on a particular note, prisoners are not receiving consistent news regarding their relatives’ wellbeing from outside. A pivotal aspect of prison chaplains’ function is serving as “carriers of death news” from prisoners’ relatives on the outside and to relatives on the outside from prisoners. This communication gap and contact with family members because of COVID-19 could be responsible for higher stress rates and despair among prisoners. The lack of prioritizing prison chaplains in receiving the COVID-19 further increases the peculiar stress and anxiety associated with imprisonment, especially during this pandemic.
The importance of prison chaplains reflects the intersections of religion, faith, or spirituality in the prison culture. Prison chaplains are facilitators of religious and spiritual experiences for prisoners necessary as a coping mechanism against the angst of COVID-19. Prison chaplains must be vaccinated to reduce the number of deaths in the prisons of the United States and the United Kingdom in this era of COVID-19. Yes, prison chaplains should be vaccinated.
Please click on the image below to access valuable and current resources regarding the indispensable roles of prison chaplains, especially prisoners and other prison staff. Please plan to join us on Sunday at 5 pm for a robust conversation on Zoom.
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Prison Chaplains and the Pandemic – Responses to Covid-19: “Every prisoner is entitled to request a visit by a chaplain, without being required to explain the reason. Such messages are passed to the chaplaincy office and a member of the team, probably of the appropriate denomination or faith, will respond quickly, for a private discussion in the inmate’s cell. Chaplains of all faiths often talk of the importance of helping, distressed prisoners to identify sources of hope. For some, a time in prison might be a place of relative safety, and a chance to think about future agency and new beginnings.”
Bishop Burns: We can’t let COVID-19 keep people in prison beyond their sentences: “Every Christmas since I’ve been a bishop, I have been in a prison to celebrate Christmas Mass with the incarcerated. I’m compelled to do this as a former chaplain for two prisons. I’ve heard many stories of pain, but also witnessed redemption and healing that can happen for many who have faced our criminal justice system.”
The Rise of the Chaplains: “Chaplains work with people from all religious backgrounds, or from none at all, offering a supportive presence, counseling, and the occasional ritual. In most settings, chaplains are guided by a code of ethics that prohibits proselytizing and requires them to serve everyone. There are no national counts of chaplains, but the field includes individuals from Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, humanist, Hindu, and pagan backgrounds.”
Spiritual Care At A Distance, Masked: Chaplains During COVID-19: “For years as a chaplain, my ministry has been my eyes, my words, my presence, my ability to listen, reaching out a hand, prayer.” Pimley says. “Now all of this has to happen behind a mask which muffles my voice and separates me from others.”
Spiritual needs of vulnerable federal inmates unmet during pandemic: chaplains: “OTTAWA — Federal prison chaplains say the spiritual needs of inmates have become an unnecessary casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic at a time when offenders are feeling particularly vulnerable and alone. The Correctional Service of Canada is allowing only emergency in-person visits from chaplains to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. The correctional service says it is ensuring inmates have access to spiritual guidance from chaplains via telephone or other technology as a temporary alternative.”
N.J. pastor, former prison chaplain with ‘big personality’ dies from coronavirus: “The Rev. Rufus McClendon Jr., 82, the former head chaplain of East Jersey State Prison, has died after contracting the coronavirus, fellow clergy and his church members said.”
McClendon, Jr., nicknamed “Bumpsy,” served as the chief chaplain at the prison from 1994 to 2008, a note of condolence said.
Prisoners live with fear and anxiety as prisons keep volunteer ministers out during COVID-19: “It’s very gloomy. You’re already in an environment that is very dark and is hopeless. It’s torture not to know the state of your family and loved ones. That begins to mess with your psyche,” said Massey, who served a 25-year sentence in Illinois for drug dealing but now serves as a ministry volunteer. “If not for the grace of God, my mind would have been messed up. I’ve seen a lot of people literally lose their mind in there. Without the Lord Jesus at my side, I don’t know what I would have done. It’s only because of the believers in my life.”
During the pandemic, chaplains are a lifeline for inmates: “I’m seeing a lot of broken men and women behind bars who haven’t had any visitations, no yard time in some cases,” Mastrolonardo said. “They have family members dying on the outside. Who is the one who is going to give them death notifications? It’s the chaplains. Who is going to go and counsel? It’s the chaplains.”
Prison ministry programs struggling amid COVID-19 concerns: “Inmates now have access to less faith-based resources due to restrictions brought on by the pandemic. Daily Bible studies and classes have been reduced in order to limit the amount of people in a room and who can preach inside of the facilities.”
Texas Department of Criminal Justice Mourns the Loss of Chaplain Gerald “Jerry” Bedison:
Prison chaplains adapt as coronavirus limits their ministry: “So we’re trying to be as creative as we can— some of our chaplains are doing things like developing their reflections and Communion services and programming, working from home and getting ahead, and using this time for getting things ready for when we can go back in, so that they’re well ahead of the game,” Cotton told CNA.
How Australia’s prison chaplains have helped inmates cope with the isolation of COVID-19: “That’s one of the things we’re learning from COVID, that people are under duress and what gets impacted is their mental health,” he says.“We do need that sense of spirituality, that gives us purpose and meaning in life. If we understand that, it seems to be, we can cope [better] when things go bad.”