Religious Diversity and Rehabilitation in Prisons: Management, Models and Mutations


Number of prisoners


% of general population aged 15+

All Christian




























Not recorded




No religion








In terms of their religion, prisoners are significantly less likely to be Christian than is the general population of England & Wales; nearly three times more likely to be Muslim; and less likely to register any religious affiliation. Since the mid-1970s, there has been a slow increase in the proportion of prisoners with no religion; a dramatic rise in the number and proportion of Muslims; and a steady decline in the proportion of Christians (Table 2.2).

Table 2.2
Changes in percentage of selected religious registrations, HM Prisons, England & Wales, 1975–2013. (Sources adapted from: Unpublished lecture by L. Rees to the Howard League for Penal Reform , 19 June 1975. Ministry of Justice, Offender Management Caseload Statistics)

1975 (%)

2013 (%)

% change (1975–2013)




− 44

Other faiths



+ 16

None etc.



+ 28

These developments have elicited three main responses from the Prison Service of England & Wales:

First, the principle of employing full-time and part-time chaplains to provide spiritual and religious care for prisoners affiliated with recognized faiths has been maintained—but modified in some important respects. Full-time chaplains in particular continue to be fully integrated into the corporate life of prison establishments. Indeed, some Muslim chaplains now occupy senior positions in the coordination of chaplaincies. And the Muslim Chaplains Association cooperates with the Prison Service in the training and professional development of Muslim chaplains.

Second, the recruitment and training of chaplains are no longer the sole preserve of the main Christian churches and denominations. Chaplains now represent a wider range of faiths. There are currently 362 chaplains working full time or part time in the 146 prisons, Immigration Removal Centres and Young Offenders Institutions of England & Wales. Roughly 140 of them are Anglicans, 90 are Muslims, 77 are Roman Catholics, 50 are from the Free Church traditions, 2 are Sikhs and 2 are Hindus. In addition, about 800 other chaplains are paid for the small number of hours that they spend each week or month visiting prisons. According to Todd and Tipton (2011, p. 9), the number of unpaid volunteers who support the work of chaplains is estimated to be about 7000.

Third, prison chaplaincies are now officially organized on a “multifaith” basis, which means that many worship spaces are shared by a number of different faith groups and that chaplaincy committees in all prisons are expected to include representatives from all the recognized faith groups having chaplains in them. In addition, the official document that specifies precisely how prisoners are permitted to practise their religion contains authoritative information about all the recognized faith traditions (Ministry of Justice 2011). It is based on extensive consultation with leading representatives of these traditions.

2.5 Continuity and Mutation

The system of religious chaplaincy in the prisons of England & Wales has progressively mutated since the mid-1970s when only 3 % of prisoners identified themselves with faiths other than Christianity (Beckford and Gilliat 1998, p. 52). Approximately 19 % of today’s prisoners fall into this category. And the proportion of prisoners registering no religious affiliation has risen sharply from 2 to 28 %. The Prison Service Chaplaincy has adapted to these changes by slightly expanding the list of “recognized” faiths and by appointing more chaplains from faiths other than Christianity (mostly Muslims). But it has not relaxed its influence or control over the ways in which chaplains provide spiritual and religious care . In essence, the model of chaplaincy that remains in force is a pragmatic adaptation of Christian principles and practices. All faiths are expected to conform to norms which were originally framed for the purposes of Christian chaplaincy. Indeed, it seems to me that the past 40 years have witnessed a process of formalization and standardization of chaplaincy norms that are supposed to apply to a growing number of different faith groups. It is as if “other” faiths have been coopted into a system that remains similar in many respects to the Christian model that prevailed long before religious diversity had increased significantly in the prison population.

This is ironic in view of the official adoption of a “multifaith” ethos for prison chaplaincy in England & Wales. For, while there is no doubt that a notion akin to the American ideal of “equal respect for all faiths” has gradually found acceptance in prisons, the basis on which chaplains from different faith traditions are expected to work in harmony has not changed significantly.2 It remains focused on the conduct of regular collective worship, scriptural study, pastoral support and the advocacy of access to “permitted” artefacts, diets, clothing, etc. And the career trajectory of full-time Hindu, Muslim and Sikh chaplains is virtually the same as that of their Christian counterparts. In other words, the social forms of chaplaincy have not changed despite the fact that additional religions have been recognized, included and supported.

Furthermore, the increase of religious diversity among prisoners has not led to the introduction of any form of interfaith activities. Each faith group continues to operate separately from the growing number of others—albeit in a largely cooperative and collegial spirit. And, apart from the provision of physical space for chaplaincy activities, most of the resources that the Prison Service provides for chaplaincy are distributed among particular faith groups: not aimed at shared or joint activities. Moreover, prisoners are not permitted to register affiliation with more than one faith group at a time. No spiritual or religious activities are available to prisoners without reference to their registered religious affiliation. In short, the growth of religious diversity among prisoners has not weakened the boundaries that separate them into “gated” enclaves.

This raises the question of whether prison chaplaincy creates separate religious enclaves which do not reflect the fluidity and fuzziness of religious identities and practices in the outside world.3 It is possible that prisons are among the very few places in Britain where there are no alternatives to identification with a single religion—or with none.

It is not at all surprising, then, that the hypothesis that multifaith chaplaincy might induce a “generic” type of chaplaincy has not been confirmed. My interviews with 10 Muslim, 4 Hindu and 2 Sikh chaplains serving in the prisons of England & Wales in 2010 showed that they made a clear distinction between multifaith and interfaith.4 They insisted on recognition of the integrity of each faith tradition whilst also acknowledging that “having a multifaith chaplaincy gives everybody the opportunity to understand that religions can work together” (M7). But a Sikh chaplain complained that efforts were made to convert Sikh prisoners to other faiths.

Nevertheless, some of the chaplains whom I interviewed were sensitive to the fact that prison chapels which had previously served as places of Christian worship had been adapted or converted into multifaith spaces. They were clearly aware of the resistance that had been expressed towards these developments. A Muslim chaplain, for example, said that he “could see this fear, you know, that Muslims are taking over” (M1).

In addition, other Muslim chaplains reported that certain “hard-line” prisoners would refuse to take part in collective prayers in a multifaith space that was shared with other faiths. One of them claimed that “most [Muslim] prisoners would prefer to pray in a mosque, designated prayer area, mosque which did … fulfil all the requirements of a mosque” (M1). Indeed, prisoners who had lived in establishments with a mosque sometimes made unfavourable comparisons with establishments that had only a multifaith centre. But the opinion of most of the Hindu, Muslim and Sikh chaplains whom I interviewed was that sharing multifaith spaces did not imply any “watering down” of the theological specificity or integrity of their practices. On the contrary, they saw the use of multifaith spaces as an opportunity to demonstrate mutual respect and mutual support. A Muslim chaplain put it in these terms: “there’s no fear factor that a multi-faith chaplaincy will diminish somebody’s Islam” (M9). And a Sikh chaplain added that multi-faith chaplaincy:

just gives a good image of a different faith working together; and it should act as a model if, say, Sikhs, Christians, Muslims are working well together and, you know, work in harmony. I mean they can live in harmony so it just gives a good picture to the wider world. I think that it’s a good role model (S2).

Nevertheless, a significant mutation of the time-honoured model of prison chaplaincy has been gradually taking shape in England & Wales since the 1990s. It is not strictly speaking a response to the growth of religious diversity but it could have implications for cooperative working among different faith groups. It is the rising influence of “community chaplaincy”.

The concept of community chaplaincy emerged in the 1970s in Canada and was formalized in the Canadian province of New Brunswick when a prison chaplain, Pierre Allard, persuaded the Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) to support his proposal to extend the work of chaplains outside the walls of prisons (Kirkegaard 2012). His idea was that rehabilitation was most likely to be successful if the provision of religious and spiritual care inside prisons could be strengthened by links with supportive volunteers and groups on the outside. It was the period of transition from incarceration to release (often referred to as “through the gate”) that struck Pierre Allard as having the greatest impact on the probability that released prisoners would reoffend. The success of community chaplaincy, according to the founding vision, depended heavily on the willingness of local religious groups to offer support and care to released prisoners, thereby creating a bridge between prisons and their localities.5 The fact that Allard went on to become director general of chaplaincy in the CSC probably created more opportunities for the movement for community chaplaincy to flourish and helped to ensure that partnerships between CSC and local faith groups spread rapidly through many regions of Canada.6

Reports about community chaplaincy in Canada quickly attracted attention in the UK, especially after a presentation that Pierre Allard made on “The community of prison chaplains” at a conference of the International Prison Chaplains Association in Switzerland in 1990 (Payne 2012). The idea was then championed by an assistant chaplain general of the Prison Service of England & Wales as well as by various individuals in local faith groups with interests in criminal justice.

The timing of these developments was such that they coincided with the emergence of the New Labour government’s enthusiasm for policies that aimed to intensify the engagement of voluntary and community groups in partnerships with the state (Beckford 2011). Indeed, the then minister for probation and prisons gave a speech in 1999 to the annual conference of the Prison Service Chaplaincy in which he outlined:

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