Professional prison chaplaincy remains fully in state budget

June 7th, 2011 at 2:04 pm

AUSTIN – After initially being proposed for elimination, professional prison chaplaincy remains in the Texas budget.

Facing steep cuts, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice first slated its professional chaplains for elimination, but Texas legislators have reinstituted that funding after a significant response from the faith community.

Significant numbers of Texas Baptist chaplains from all fields, restorative justice leaders, pastors and lay leaders voiced their support for the chaplaincy program, said Suzii Paynter, director of the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission. Fueled by the impact they’ve seen prison chaplains have, they visited with lawmakers and urged them to keep the program.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” Paynter said recently. “With all the calls, letters and e-mails, we were able to reinstate this fully in the budget. No group was more prominent than Texas Baptist chaplains.

Fifty-two people showed up to visit with lawmakers during a CLC-orchestrated lobby day on the professional chaplaincy issue. The Restorative Justice Ministries Network became involved in the lobby effort. Baptist, Catholic and Jewish leaders testified before the legislature. Together, the groups helped lawmakers understand the importance of professional chaplains, said Bobby Smith, director of Texas Baptists chaplaincy relations.

“It was everybody’s phone calls,” he said. “It was everybody’s e-mails. It was everybody’s lobbying. I truly believe it was a consistent voice that kept speaking in the ears of the Texas legislators that made the difference.”

Professional chaplains serve as the gateway for the more than 18,000 church volunteers who serve in prisons each year, seeking to change lives by sharing the hope of Christ with inmates, Smith noted. They continually train and recruit volunteers to serve effectively behind prison walls.

Through their service, chaplaincy actually saves the state money, Smith said. Research indicated prison chaplaincy lowers recidivism by at least 50 percent and improves inmate behavior. The less time people spend in prison, the fewer dollars the state has to spend caring for them.

“It’s ministry that’s being done on a professional basis that makes a difference,” he said. “It’s prisoners and prison staff who are receiving professional pastoral care rather than not. I would hate to see the alternative of a prison system without emotional and spiritual support given by people who really care.”

More than only a spiritual light in a dark place, Paynter said prison chaplains also protect the constitutionally-guaranteed religious liberties of inmates. They understand the ins and outs of legal rulings on the issue and how to allow offenders to practice their religious beliefs.

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