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.
The chaplains, however, say few inmates even know about such options, let alone have a chance to use them. In some cases, technological hurdles are preventing prisoners from connecting with chaplains.
It means many inmates no longer have regular contact with a person they trust, said one chaplain who works with offenders at a federal prison in Ontario.
"It's just not a good situation and the tensions are rising, and there's a lot of fear and isolation," she said in an interview.
"They need something to reach out to, and have something there."
The Canadian Press granted the chaplain anonymity due to concerns about repercussions from her employer.
Some 180 chaplains representing various faiths work at the correctional service's 43 institutions across Canada, said Troy Lundblad, a staff representative with the United Steelworkers, the union representing chaplains as they negotiate their first collective agreement.
About one-third of the chaplains usually work on-site at institutions full-time, while others have hours that vary from month to month, he said.
The decision to curtail in-person spiritual services during the pandemic has forced chaplains to turn to government-assistance programs, Lundblad said.
The right of offenders to practise their religion is guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Chaplains ensure inmates of all traditions can observe their faith, examine their behaviours and decisions and discover new ways of living, the correctional service says on its website.
"This can help offenders find greater wholeness and accept responsibility for their actions, which in turn contributes to their safe reintegration into our communities."
When they do make emergency visits to prisons, chaplains often open their email inboxes to find numerous requests for assistance from inmates, Lundblad said.
"They're not allowed to access their CSC (correctional service) email outside of the institutions themselves for security reasons. So they really don't know what's going on inside."
The correctional service has put a process in place to ensure inmates have virtual access to spiritual services from chaplains, said service spokeswoman Esther Mailhot.
"Additionally, in cases where there is urgent need for a personal visit from a chaplain — where safe and practicable — institutional managers are able to make the required arrangements," she said.
The Ontario chaplain told The Canadian Press she recently heard from some inmates through letters they sent to the church with which she is affiliated.
"And basically they were unaware at all that there was any way they could rely on us," she said. "That bothers me a lot."
In an April 22 letter to the correctional service, the bargaining team for the chaplains said "creative solutions for delivering spiritual care in this time of necessary social distancing are possible, doable and necessary."
It proposed measures such as making the closed-circuit TV channel at institutions available for chaplains to teach and offer reassuring messages, as well as allowing inmates to contact chaplains directly through prison video-conferencing stations.
At the very least, a chaplain and an Indigenous elder should have "a visible presence in every institution across the country," the letter said.
"Most importantly, this information should be shared with the institutions, and designed in an efficient way, which doesn't increase their workload unmanageably. All necessary precautions can and should be taken to ensure the safety of the inmates and other staff."
The Ontario chaplain acknowledged there are concerns about transmitting COVID-19 in institutions.
"We want everybody to be safe," she said. "We're asking for the possibility to sit down and problem-solve this and brainstorm it, and work out a way where we can all be happy with what's happening."
The correctional service is "constantly evaluating its responses to the risks of the pandemic and, as soon as it is safe to do so, we will once again facilitate greater access to institutions," Mailhot said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 4, 2020.
—Follow @JimBronskill on Twitter
Jim Bronskill , The Canadian Press