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Sociological perspective

Chaplains are recruited and trained, through varying procedures, by each religious group. They must be accredited by the prison administration. They may benefit from compensation paid by the State.
For a few years, there were claims that Jehovah’s Witnesses were victims of discrimination, particularly in their ability to be prison chaplains. Debate ended with the publication of the Opinion on the exercise of worship in places of deprivation of liberty published in the Official Journal of 17 April 2011, text No. 13, which states that “the administration shall not [...] give a reduced status to chaplains” of a minority religion. The opposite would amount to assuming that the prison administration would have the authority to assess “which faiths may be accepted and with which prerogatives in places of deprivation of liberty”. On 16 October 2013, the Council of State confirmed that chaplains of the Jehovah’s Witnesses must be accredited for prisons.

As of January 1, 2015, there were 1,628 religious workers in the prison administration, hailing from different faiths: Catholic 760, Protestant 377, Muslim 193, Jehovah’s Witnesses 111, Israelite 75, Orthodox 52, Buddhist 10, Other 50 (figures provided by the Government).

According to Sarg and Lamine, “religion often appears as one resource among others in prison”, while being “not exactly the same as the others”: in this context strictly regulated by the administration, the status of chaplaincy, which is on the margins of the institution, gives the religious powers flexibility and a broad and important role, for instance enabling individuals to bring structure (back) to their existences, give meaning to their lives, experience the symbol of another possible world. Whatever their faith, chaplains play multiple roles (psychologist, legal counsel, brother or friend).

In recent years, debate in society has frequently focused on the religious radicalization that would take place in prison, particularly in the case of Islam. Islam has a distinct status in prison environments, in two respects. Firstly, because this faith is the one that most frequently falls victim to discrimination. The report of the Comptroller General of Places of Deprivation of Liberty of 17 April 2013 points out that the administration sometimes lacks neutrality towards non-Christian religions and especially Islam, noting for example the difficulty in obtaining halal meals, the lack of chaplains, the lack of respect for religious objects or times of prayer, and the disrespectful remarks from staff on religious beliefs and practices. Secondly, because, among the various possible uses of religion by detainees, Islam is the religion that is used for protest, according to Sarg and Lamine. However, Béraud et al. point out that religion in prison remains a minority phenomenon, especially in its radical modes, which “most often remain minor, alongside a peaceful and ordinary form of religiosity”.

D 31 August 2015    AAnne-Laure Zwilling

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

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