Prison Chaplain

A chaplain is defined as a member of the clergy who conducts religious services for an institution, such as a prison, military base, post-secondary institution or hospital. No denomination is tied to the word “chaplain,” as it encompasses all faiths who are working or residing in the facility. 

Prison chaplains became a lifeline for prison inmates during the COVID-19 pandemic. Sometimes they were the only people from the “outside” that inmates had any direct contact with, as members of the public were banned from visiting. Religious materials were deemed essential, so prison chaplains were allowed to maintain visits with most inmates. This was truly a Godsend for many prison inmates. 

Working as a prison chaplain is a rewarding yet challenging career choice, and is not as easy of a career to enter into as you might think. You must fulfill many requirements before you may be allowed to work as a prison chaplain, as, even though the religious and spiritual treatment of inmates is important, security of the institution remains the utmost priority. We will examine the profession of prison chaplain in-depth here. 

prison chaplain with prisoner holding cross

Job Duties of a Prison Chaplain

Most prison chaplain jobs are essentially the same, no matter whether you work in a federal prison, state or county prison, or other institution. They usually include:

  • Administering, supervising and performing work in religious guidance of inmates
  • Provide full pastoral ministry to inmates of all faith groups, including public and private worship on Sundays and holy days
  • Maintain and conduct a program of religious instruction that includes classes, work and discussion groups
  • Maintain close working relationship with other departments in the correctional institution to treat and rehabilitate inmates
  • Maintain close ties with your own denomination to maintain current religious endorsement, including attending denominational meetings
  • Supervise contract workers and volunteers providing religious activities for inmates
  • Maintain security of the institution

Prison chaplains do not usually carry firearms or personal protection while in the institution, so you should be able to defend yourself in case of emergency or physical attack.

Skills a Prison Chaplain Should Have

The best prison chaplains possess the following skills:

  • Good oral and written communication skills
  • Honesty and integrity
  • Knowledge of pastoral care procedures and skills
  • Great motivational and encouragement skills
  • Great management and leadership skills
  • Great interpersonal skills
  • Good organizational, planning and evaluation skills
  • Knowledge of physical defense tactics
  • Knowledge of first aid and CPR

Qualifying for a Prison Chaplain Job

Before you will be allowed to work in a prison as a chaplain, you must fulfill these qualifications:

  • Be at least 18 years old
  • Be a U.S. citizen
  • Possess a bachelor’s degree from an accredited school
  • Earn ecclesiastical approval from your religious group or denomination
  • Pass a drug test
  • Pass a criminal background check

Most prison chaplaincy jobs will also require that you have some experience. The Federal Bureau of Prisons requires that you have two years of experience as a religious leader in a parish or specialized ministry setting.

Education and Training for Prison Chaplains

Most prison chaplaincy position require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree. This should be in a field such as religion, religious studies, theology, Bible studies or a related discipline. Some prisons may require their chaplains to have a master’s degree. The Federal Bureau of Prisons, for example, requires prison chaplains to have a Master of Divinity. Make sure that the school at which you choose to study is accredited by an organization recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. Some of the most common religious accreditation agencies include:

  • Association for Biblical Higher Education (ABHE)
  • Association of Advanced Rabbinical and Talmudic Schools (AARTS)
  • Association of Theological Schools, The Commission on Accrediting (ATS)
  • Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS)

Within the Master of Divinity should be the following courses:

  • 20 graduate hours of theology
  • 20 graduate hours of sacred writings
  • 20 graduate hours of comparative religions or church history
  • 20 graduate hours of ministry courses

Earning Approval and Endorsement from Your Religious Group

A prison will not even accept you as an applicant to become its chaplain until you have received approval and endorsement from your religious denomination or group. The process to earn this approval differs from one denomination to the next, but usually includes that you have demonstrated your skills in ministry. This entails working for a year or two as a full-time minister. Community service hours are also important in earning the endorsement of your group. You should consult with your denomination or faith group to discover its exact requirements for endorsement. Although not a complete list, the Office of the Under Secretary for Personnel and Policy of the Department of Defense maintains a list of endorsing organizations/agents here. t is intended for those who wish to become military chaplains, but could be helpful for anyone seeking a chaplaincy. 

Salaries and Jobs for Prison Chaplains

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that, as of May 2021, the mean annual wage for chaplains/clergypersons is $57,230. Wages differ by governmental level, state and prison, of course. 

If you work for the Federal Bureau of Prisons as a chaplain, for example, you will start at a salary level of GS-12, which corresponds to annual pay of $68,299 to $88,792. 

The best way to study salaries for prison chaplains nationwide is to look at some of the current job openings. As of May 2022, they include:

  • Chaplain, Bureau of Prisons, Victorville, CA
    • Salary: $91,254 to $118,635/year
  • Chaplain I, State of Arizona, San Luis, AZ
    • Salary: $40,000 to $46,000/year
  • Chaplain, State of New Mexico, Santa Rosa, NM
    • Salary: $31,906 to $55,515/year
  • Correctional Chaplain, State of Indiana, Pendleton, IN
    • Salary: $37,986/year
  • Jewish Chaplain, California Public Utilities Commission, Kern County, CA
    • Salary: $29,436 to $38,640/year
  • Executive Chaplain, Oklahoma Jail & Prison Ministries, Oklahoma City, OK
    • Salary not specified

Resources for Prison Chaplains

Here are some resources for those who wish to become prison chaplains: