NASHVILLE — Fifth in a weekly series
Sunday mornings are busy for prison chaplain Greg Gregory, but his Fridays typically start before dawn.
As the sun rose over the yard at Nash Correctional Institution, about two dozen adherents of American Indian religions used a turkey feather to fan smoke of burning sage and sweet grass as they chanted praises to the Four Winds and Grandfather Great Spirit.
Then came the worship service for members of the Moorish Science Temple of America, followed after lunch by an Islamic Juma.
Ordained as a Presbyterian minister, Gregory now spends much of his time working to meet the spiritual needs of inmates who aren't Christians.
"I'm not here to be a soul winner for Jesus," said Gregory, 68. "I'm here to promote the joy of increasing personal responsibility."
But with the budget emerging from the General Assembly that would bring major cuts to state government, Gregory may not be working much longer. A prison employee since 1994, he is one of 25 chaplains who received written notice last month from the N.C. Department of Correction that they are likely to be out of work June 30, the end of the current fiscal year.
The proposed layoffs would result in estimated savings of more than $1.3 million - little more than collection plate change in a state budget expected to top $19.7 billion. But the trim is part of a much larger change in the state's public safety budget as Republicans push to reshape government by cutting taxes, eliminating jobs, adding fees and cutting grants for higher education.
To help close a budget gap of $2.5 billion and deliver promised reductions to sales and business taxes, the GOP budget slashes about $189.6 million from funding for courts, prisons and police programs, eliminating 1,270 jobs.
Nearly 500 of those jobs would be cut at the Department of Correction, part of $84 million in reductions that include a plan to reduce costs by releasing well-behaved inmates earlier, closing four prisons and the elimination of a program that puts inmates to work on public service projects.
Also eliminated: $2 million in funding for the state's Drug Treatment Courts, which allow nonviolent offenders addicted to drugs to avoid prison time if they get clean and stay out of trouble.
The budget eliminates the jobs of chaplains at all minimum and medium security prisons in favor of volunteers legislators say will do the job free. Chaplains at the state's 20 maximum security prisons, where access by nonprison employees is more tightly controlled, will remain.
"Volunteers could fill that void at the medium-security and the low-security (prisons)," said Sen. Neal Hunt, a Raleigh Republican who is one of the chief budget writers in the Senate. "The idea is to save money."
Inmates of many faiths
Republican leaders said private prison ministries would have an increased role to meet the spiritual needs of state inmates at no cost to taxpayers.
Hunt mentioned Prison Fellowship, a Virginia-based ministry started by former Nixon aide Charles W. Colson after he was incarcerated for his part in the Watergate scandal, and School of Christ International, a Texas-based group that offers free correspondence courses in biblical studies to inmates.
Gregory, who schedules and organizes visits by volunteer preachers at the prison where he works, said there is no problem lining up well-intentioned evangelical Christians interested in saving lost souls.
But Gregory worries about the rest of the prison population.
Nash Correctional is designed to hold 640 inmates, but now has 980 - many of them sleeping in bunk beds packed into what were once recreation areas. Of those, 64 prisoners identify themselves as followers of Islam. There are also 63 Rastafarians, 43 American Indians, 20 Wiccans, about a dozen Messianic Jews and a couple of Hindus.
North Carolina's prison chaplains are trained to minister to the needs of adherents to 13 officially recognized religious faiths, as well as to counsel inmates with no declared faith on issues such as conflict avoidance and anger management. At Nash, 123 inmates express no preference for any religion.
"I'd be a terrible chaplain if I was not rooted in my faith, but there are not a lot of Presbyterians in here," said Gregory, a native of upstate New York who graduated from a seminary in Virginia. "We can't have a whole without a lot of parts. It would be an abuse of my authority to proselytize for a specific faith."
Gregory pointed to the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a federal law passed in 2000 that requires that state prisons receiving federal funding accommodate the diverse religious practices and beliefs of inmates, unless officials are able to prove that doing so would jeopardize order and safety.
'I have to be a cop'
In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that prisons can confer "no privileged status on any particular religious sect, and single out no bona fide faith for disadvantageous treatment."
In practical terms, that means Gregory is the man to see at Nash if you need a Muslim prayer rug. He helps Rastafarians maintain their vegan diet behind bars, while helping Muslims seeking to know whether the bologna served in the institution's cafeteria contains any pork.
Smoking is banned in state prisons, but in his office, Gregory keeps a locked wooden chest with the head of an Indian chief carved in the lid that contains a small stash of pipe tobacco approved for use in sacred ceremonies.
"I spend a lot of my time doing paperwork," he said with a sigh. "Volunteers are extremely valuable. I would hate to do my job without them.
"But they don't do what a chaplain does. I'm not just an instrument of God; I have to be a cop, too."
Ultimately, he said, the function of a chaplain is to help maintain a secure facility.
And in doing so, Gregory argued, he and his colleagues actually more than pay for themselves.
He and other prison officials said inmates who regularly attend religious services are less likely to act out and be written up for infractions of prison rules.
Inmates who rack up infractions are punished by being housed at a higher security level with more stringent restrictions, which costs more.
It costs $32,262 a year to keep an inmate at a maximum security facility - up from $23,575 in minimum security.
Though the impact of religion in prisons can be difficult to quantify, there are some studies indicating that faith can reduce crime and recidivism among inmates. A 2004 study by a Baylor University researcher, for example, concluded that inmates who were the most active in a Bible study program were about 50 percent less likely to be rearrested within the first three years after release.
With more than 43,000 inmates in the prison system and only 46 chaplains, Gregory said he and his colleagues are "profit centers" for the state.
"If you want to save the state money, then double the number of chaplains," he said. "We are an instrument of order and peace in a situation that is often chaotic and violent."
Bob Lewis, the state's director of prisons, agreed.
"Chaplains help us manage the inmates," Lewis said. "We have a lot of resources we utilize in our system to control offenders, but the one thing we know of that absolutely works is religion.
"That doesn't work for every single inmate. But for the vast majority, religious services do help."
Talking with 'Chap'
Lewis said if legislators cut the number of chaplains, the prison system will have to use other employees to try to organize and facilitate religious services. He echoed concerns about providing equal treatment for non-Christian inmates if the system is reliant only on the mostly Christian volunteers.
Hunt brushed aside those concerns. "If they (Muslim clerics) want to come in, they can come in," Hunt said. "If they don't, I don't think that is our problem."
Gregory said he has tried repeatedly to find Muslim clerics willing to travel to Nash, without success.
As he walked through a crowded cell block at the prison late last month, both inmates and guards called on "Chap" to seek his advice. Gregory had a lengthy conversation with a gruff correctional sergeant about whether the pagan Wiccans worship Satan (they don't) and whether American Indians are allowed to have sacred cigarettes in their cells (they aren't).
Asked to describe the core responsibilities of his job, Gregory smiled and said simply, "Listen, listen. And love, love."
The chaplain said he isn't sure what he'll do if he loses his position at the end of the month.
At the root of all major religions is taking responsibility for your actions, and the chaplain said he still relishes those moments of epiphany when an inmate comes to terms with what it will take to live an honest life - regardless of which faith he uses to get there.
"When someone looks in the mirror, and pulls away all the crap, and then says, 'I did wrong,' and mans up and takes responsibility for their actions, that's progress in my book," he said.
"We should have the support of law-and-order advocates, because that's what we preach in here."
firstname.lastname@example.org or 919-829-4698