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Delivering religious services to 30 denominations


TOWSON, MD — Providing religious services to 21,000 inmates in the Maryland prison system makes the 12 days of Christmas seem like a cake walk.

Thirty-one department chaplains throughout 24 facilities minister to traditional religions like Christianity, as well as to lesser known ones, such as Nichiren Buddhism, a branch of Buddhism based on the teachings of a 13th Century Japanese monk.

Chaplains help the 15,000 to 16,000 inmates who practice their faiths to celebrate 93 religious observances throughout the year, said Chaplain Charles Law, who serves as the department’s Acting Director for Religious Services.

“Being an interfaith chaplain, we have to deal with a lot of different faiths that are not our persuasions,” said Law, who has been a chaplain in the state prisons for the last 21 years. “We’re there to help them practice their faiths.”

The holiday season begins with the Rastafari Ethiopian Christmas on December 7, followed by the Roman Catholic Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary on December 8.

The month of religious observances continues on December 15 with the Moorish Science Temple of America‘s New Year, and concluding with the Feast of Thunar on December 20 for those who practice Heathen religions.

Correctional departments across the nation must provide the services as part of the federal law called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000. In addition to observances, the department allows materials needed for offenders ranging from a Koran for Muslims to headbands for Native Americans.

“We know that Christians need Bibles, Hindus need candles, and Catholics can wear a cross around their necks,” Law said. “All of it is tempered by security and the orderly operation of the institution.”

Some religions have dietary restrictions while others require inmates not to work on specific days, Law said.

Law, a former Baltimore Police Officer, stumbled into prison ministry by helping a pastor at a Volunteers of America halfway house in Baltimore. He was later invited to assist with Bible study classes at the former Baltimore City Detention Center before joining the department full time in 1995.

Allowing offenders to practice their faiths can be critical to rehabilitation, Law said.

“You tend to be a haven for an inmate to come and talk to you,” said Law, who completed a non-denominational Christian seminary for the Greater Grace World Outreach in Baltimore. “They know that you’re not going to judge them no matter how heinous the crime.”

Chaplains also grow in faith, Law said.

“There are actually inmates that help you mature,” he said. “You learn more about the human psyche. I actually get an education from them.”

In hiring chaplains, the department requires that they have experience in corrections, Law said.

“Most of the chaplains have had a life before the department and most of us have had interfaith training,” Law said. “Working in the corrections environment allows you to interface with different faiths so you learn a lot.”