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Prison Chaplains Pray, Plead for Funds

Chaplains have been a part of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice since at least 1910, providing spiritual guidance and programs. Under the proposed House budget, all 121 Texas prison chaplains would lose their jobs.

Prison chaplains meet at 1st Baptist church before heading to Texas Capitol to speak to lawmakers on Wednesday.

Bill Kleiber knows the difference prison chaplains can make in an inmate’s life. Kleiber found redemption with the help of a chaplain at the Lychner state prison in Houston, where he was serving time on drug charges in 2000.

Now, more than 10 years after he left prison, Kleiber has his own ministry working with inmates who are re-entering society after years behind bars. “I’ve been redeemed, and I’ve watched other people be redeemed,” Kleiber says.

Chaplains have been a part of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice since at least 1910, providing spiritual guidance and programs for inmates like Kleiber and for guards who have the stressful job of managing thousands of criminals. Under the proposed House budget, however, the $4.8 million the state pays for the prison chaplaincy program would fall to zero, and all 121 prison chaplains in Texas would lose their jobs. More than a dozen chaplains with the Baptist General Convention of Texas converged on the Capitol on Wednesday. After praying for help from above and solidifying their talking points, they met with lawmakers and urged them not to slash their funding. “My concern is not my job,” says Daniel Williams, a chaplain at the Garza East and Garza West prisons in Beeville. “My concern is that the gospel gets to be preached.”

Chaplains do much more than preach the gospel to criminals, though. They coordinate and monitor about 18,000 volunteers who work with inmates at the state’s 114 prisons and jails. They work on programs to support crime victims and inmates’ families. Chaplains also have the unenviable responsibility of delivering devastating news to inmates about family deaths and illnesses. And they are trained to minister to inmates of all denominations and religions. “They definitely have a positive impact,” says Michelle Lyons, spokeswoman for the TDCJ.

The spiritual benefits of having professional chaplains inside prisons are many, the chaplains say, including helping stabilize what can be a tenuous and stressful environment for both inmates and prison guards. Chaplains are the only ones on a prison unit who can offer confidentiality to both.

But in their talks with lawmakers, chaplains planned to focus on the fiscal impact of their work, knowing that legislators’ top priority is filling a budget gap estimated to be anywhere from $15 billion to $27 billion. “We can’t sell pastoral care,” says Michael Maness, a senior TDCJ chaplain at Gib Lewis State Prison. “We’re cutting back stick ‘ums and allocating toilet paper.”

Emmett Solomon, the founder of Restorative Justice Ministries Network in Huntsville, worked for three decades in the TDCJ’s chaplaincy department and was its director for 10 years. Axing prison chaplains, he says, would have serious legal and financial consequences for the prison system. Prisons are constitutionally bound to allow inmates to religious liberty. Without chaplains to facilitate religious expression, Solomon says, the state would likely face expensive litigation. 

Plus, Solomon says, chaplains save the state money because inmates who find spiritual grounding in prison are less likely to commit future crimes and land back behind bars. “Religion does change people, and we need it in there full-force,” he says.

The chaplains argue that volunteers alone, who are not professionally trained to minister to different denominations or to deal with the trauma of delivering death notices, could not handle the prison mission. And Solomon says that by cutting the budget for chaplains, the state would transfer that expense onto the church, which already provides about $10 million worth of volunteer work for the prison system each year. “It just won’t fly,” he says.

Kleiber, who joined the prison chaplains to urge lawmakers not to cut their funding, says losing the services would be devastating to recent criminal justice reforms that Texas legislators implemented that have helped drive down the inmate population and the crime rate. "It'll go back to being a big human warehouse," he says, "where we put bad people and make them worse."

State Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Plano, chairman of the House Criminal Justice Committee, spoke with the chaplains on Wednesday. The services they provide have a great payback in reducing recidivism, and he says he is hopeful lawmakers will find a way to keep them working in state prisons. “I’m fairly confident somehow or another we’ll find that comparatively small amount of money and restore all or parts of it,” he says.

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Criminal justice State government 82nd Legislative Session State agencies Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Texas Legislature