Pew study provides rare window into religion behind bars


WASHINGTON, D.C. — America's prisons have become a hotbed of evangelistic activity, according to a new Pew Research Center survey of professional chaplains assigned to minister there.

"Religion in Prisons: A 50-State Survey of Prison Chaplains," conducted by the center's Forum on Religion & Public Life division found that 74 percent of the prison chaplains say that efforts by inmates to proselytize or convert other inmates are either very common (31 percent) or somewhat common (43 percent). About three-quarters of the chaplains say that a lot (26 percent) or some (51 percent) religious switching occurs among inmates in the prisons where they work. Many chaplains report growth from religious switching in the numbers of Muslims and Protestant Christians, in particular.

The survey also explored the question of religious extremism, a frequent talking point since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. More than one-third of the clergy polled said that religious extremism is either very common (12 percent) or somewhat common (29 percent) among inmates.

Religious extremism is reported by the chaplains as especially common among Muslim inmates—including followers of the Nation of Islam and the Moorish Science Temple of America—and, to a substantial but lesser degree, among followers of pagan or earth-based religions such as Odinism and other small religious groups of which many Americans may have never heard.

Just over a fifth of the respondents said that religious extremism seldom poses a threat to the security of the facility in which they work, with only 4 percent of chaplains saying religious extremism among inmates "almost always" poses a threat to prison security and an additional 19 percent saying it "sometimes" poses a threat.

The survey, conducted from Sept. 21 to Dec. 23 and released in late March, also sought to get a picture of the religious make-up of inmates since most prisons track the data but do not make it public.

On average, the chaplains surveyed say that Christians as a whole make up about two-thirds of the inmate population in the facilities where they work. Protestants are seen, on average, as comprising 51 percent of the inmate population, Catholics 15 percent and other Christian groups less than 2 percent. The median estimate of the share of Protestants is 50 percent, meaning that half of the chaplains estimate that Protestants comprise more than 50 percent of the inmate population where they work, and half of the chaplains estimate the figure to be below that.

At the same time, the survey found that a majority (77 percent total) of chaplains reported that there is either "a lot" of religious switching (26 percent) or "some" switching of religious affiliation among inmates (51 percent).

Among chaplains who report that at least some switching occurs within the correctional facilities where they work, about half (51 percent) report that Muslims are growing in number, and 47 percent say the same about Protestant Christians. A sizable minority (34 percent) of chaplains answering this question also say that followers of pagan or earth-based religions are growing.

The religious affiliations of the chaplains themselves was also studied with 71 percent of those polled identifying as Protestants, 13 percent Catholics, 7 percent Muslims and the remainder other religions, including Judaism and Native American spirituality. A plurality of the chaplains (44 percent) consider their faith to be part of the evangelical Protestant tradition while 15 percent come from a mainline Protestant tradition and 7 percent are from a historically black Protestant tradition.

Researchers attempted to contact all 1,474 professional chaplains working in state prisons across the country, and 730 chaplains returned completed questionnaires, a response rate of nearly 50 percent. Funding for the survey was underwritten by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

ACTION POINT: To see the entire report, including the chaplains' thoughts on faith-based training and re-entry programs, visit