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Self-Perceived Role and Function of Christian Prison Chaplains and Buddhist Volunteers in Hong Kong Prisons

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Abstract

Although there have been a handful of studies examining the work of chaplains and prison volunteers in a Western setting, few have endeavored to conduct research into the experiences of religious workers in Asian penitentiaries. To fill this gap, this article reports on exploratory research examining the work of a selected group of religious workers in Hong Kong prisons. A total of 17 religious workers were interviewed: 10 prison chaplains and 7 Buddhist volunteers who paid regular prison visits. Qualitative findings generated from in-depth interviews present three themes: the range of religious activities performed, the importance of religion for the rehabilitation of inmates, and the hope of continued religious support to prisoners after discharge. The significance of this research is that it sheds light on the understudied work of prison chaplains and volunteers in Hong Kong and portrays the difference between the works of the Christian ministry and Buddhist volunteers.
International Journal of
Offender Therapy and
Comparative Criminology
57(2) 154 –168
© The Author(s) 2013
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DOI: 10.1177/0306624X11432128
http://ijo.sagepub.com
432128IJO57210.1177/0306624X11432128Chui
and ChengInternational Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology
1The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, SAR
Corresponding Author:
Wing Hong Chui, The University of Hong Kong, Pokfulam Road, Hong Kong
Email: ericchui@hku.hk
Self-Perceived Role and
Function of Christian
Prison Chaplains and
Buddhist Volunteers
in Hong Kong Prisons
Wing Hong Chui1 and Kevin Kwok-yin Cheng1
Abstract
Although there have been a handful of studies examining the work of chaplains and
prison volunteers in a Western setting, few have endeavored to conduct research into
the experiences of religious workers in Asian penitentiaries. To fill this gap, this article
reports on exploratory research examining the work of a selected group of religious
workers in Hong Kong prisons. A total of 17 religious workers were interviewed:
10 prison chaplains and 7 Buddhist volunteers who paid regular prison visits. Qualitative
findings generated from in-depth interviews present three themes: the range of
religious activities performed, the importance of religion for the rehabilitation of
inmates, and the hope of continued religious support to prisoners after discharge.
The significance of this research is that it sheds light on the understudied work of
prison chaplains and volunteers in Hong Kong and portrays the difference between
the works of the Christian ministry and Buddhist volunteers.
Keywords
religious workers, Christianity, Buddhism, volunteers, prison, Hong Kong
Introduction
Religion has been an effective vehicle for the rehabilitation of criminal offenders
(Beckford & Gilliat, 1998; Echo-Hawk, 1996; Ellison, Bartkowski, & Anderson,
1999; Johnson, Larson, Li, & Jang, 2000; Kinney, 2006; O’Connor, 2002). In the last
Chui and Cheng 155
10 years, there has been a growing volume of research conducted in the United States
and the United Kingdom examining the value of faith-based programs in prisons (see,
for example, Baier & Wright, 2001; Clear, Hardyman, Stout, Lucken, & Dammer,
2000; Clear & Sumter, 2002; Kerley, Matthews, & Schulz, 2005). However, the
people who bring religion into prisons, namely, chaplains and volunteers, remain an
understudied group. Even scarcer emphasis has been placed on examining how reli-
gion works in prisons in Asian countries. Although possessing a less-storied history
than its Western counterparts, ministerial work in Hong Kong prisons has a long
tradition. Since the late 1970s, religious groups like the Hong Kong Christian Kun
Sun Association, a part of the worldwide Prison Fellowship efforts, have preached
the gospel and offered a helping hand to inmates in every correctional facility in
Hong Kong (Hong Kong Christian Kun Sun Association, 2006).
To further our knowledge of the roles of religious workers in Asia, we intend to
explore and document the work of prison chaplains and Buddhist prison volunteers in
Hong Kong. Buddhist volunteers are of particular interest because Buddhist teachings
have been recently adopted in numerous penitentiaries to help inmates find peace and
cope with the difficulties of prison life. The meditation that these inmates are taught to
practice stems from ancient Chinese Buddhist thought (Central News Network, 2009),
thus making research into the Chinese context timely. This study is primarily descrip-
tive in that it intends to analyze the value of religion in Hong Kong prisons from the
perspective of religious workers who deliver various religious services to prisoners. At
the outset it is important to acknowledge that, while recognizing the increasingly
diverse religious needs of inmates in Hong Kong, this small-scale, exploratory study
is mainly concerned with two religious traditions, namely, Christianity and Buddhism.
The article is divided into four sections. The first section provides a brief overview
of the literature on religion in prisons and information on religious workers in Hong
Kong prisons. The second section outlines the qualitative method used in this study.
The third section reports the results generated from in-depth interviews with the reli-
gious workers. Three major themes are discussed: the types of religious activities for
prisoners, the views of the religious workers on the role of religion in Hong Kong
prisons, and the support available to inmates after their discharge. Throughout, the
differences between the Christian chaplains and Buddhist volunteers are portrayed.
The concluding section is a discussion of the findings and provides implications for
future studies.
A Review of the Literature
Ministry workers have maintained a presence throughout Western penal history dat-
ing back to the 1800s, although their role has moved from the forefront of the peni-
tentiary to that of the outskirts (Sundt, Dammer, & Cullen, 2002). As society became
more secularized, the work of these chaplains and volunteers was transformed from
that of a spiritual leader to that “often indistinguishable from the social worker”
(Garland, 1990, p. 204). Within the past two decades, however, there has been a
156 International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology 57(2)
renewed enthusiasm for more religious programing in the prison, and this has been
tied to the rehabilitation of offenders (see Kinney, 2006; Sundt et al., 2002). Possible
reasons for this resurgence are the growth of multiculturalism making religion more
acceptable as a form of counseling and cutbacks of mental health institutions in pro-
viding long-term counseling for patients. This has led to people turning to pastors to
act as a counselor, because churches rarely charge for their services (Worthington,
Kurusu, McCullough, & Sandage, 1996). More importantly, religion has been found
to work in inhibiting deviant behavior (Baier & Wright, 2001; Evans, Cullen,
Dunaway, & Burton, 1995) and reducing recidivism among offenders (Clear et al.,
1992; Ellison et al., 1999; Johnson, 2004).
Unsurprisingly then, a wide range of faith-based programs have been offered to
prisoners, ex-prisoners, and their families in Western countries (Mears, Roman, Wolff,
& Buck, 2006; Thomas & Zaitzow, 2006). These programs range from regular reli-
gious meetings to hobby classes. O’Connor and Perreyclear (2002) found that, in
1996, a total of 23 kinds of religious activities were organized either by volunteers or
chaplains. Examples of these programs included worship services, Bible studies, semi-
nars, choirs, meditation, pastoral counseling, Christmas programs, and fellowship
gatherings. Whereas most of these programs were held on a weekly basis, others were
single-day or one-off events. In addition, Beckford (1998) reported that “the celebra-
tion of ‘holy days’ and religious festivals also figures prominently in the annual round
of chaplaincy events” (p. 267) and that these events were mainly held in Christian
chapels built at the heart of prisons.
Despite this new prominence of religious programs inside the prison system, only
a few studies have devoted attention to the actual work of chaplains and religious vol-
unteers systematically. The first study was conducted by Sundt and Cullen (1998) who
surveyed 232 prison chaplains and concluded that the contemporary chaplain in the
United States performs religious and secular duties, including counseling and coordi-
nating religious activities which are considered secular and conducting services which
are seen as a religious task. The chaplains saw themselves as a unique group that
sought to serve inmates and not simply to help run the prison. The second study by
Sundt and Cullen (2002) found that chaplains were overwhelmingly supportive of
rehabilitation and the treatment of prisoners, although they acknowledge that the goal
of prisons is primarily incarcerating offenders for the protection of society. More sig-
nificantly, the chaplains regarded their spiritual work as contributing to the reforming
of individuals. Extending their inquiry into the work of prison chaplains, Sundt et al.
(2002) examined specifically the role of 277 chaplains with respect to counseling. The
authors found that chaplains combined secular and religious methods of counseling to
achieve their goals of offender adjustment and rehabilitation. These counseling ses-
sions aimed to instil religious values such as personal responsibility and good decision
making.
In summary, the role of contemporary chaplains is that of a “jack-of-all-trades”
(Sundt & Cullen, 1998, p. 284) who have to balance their religious and secular duties.
Their goal is to be there for inmates and rehabilitate them through a mixture of secular
Chui and Cheng 157
and spiritual methods. The work of the prison chaplain in offering assistance is con-
trasted with the control setting of the prison, one of which the chaplains are well
aware. The extant literature has further pointed out a newer role that contemporary
chaplains have to play, and it is that of an administrator, where they are responsible for
supervising the vast numbers of volunteers who seek to assist them in correctional
facilities (Sundt & Cullen, 1998). It is this group that attention is turned to next.
With the array of duties that chaplains need to perform, volunteers are indispensi-
ble. Tewksbury and Dabney (2004) were the first to assess prison volunteers’ motiva-
tions. Through a survey of 72 volunteers in one Southern state prison in the United
States, they found that most volunteers were motivated by their religious convictions.
Thus, the majority of prison volunteers participated in religious programs organized
by the chaplaincy. Moreover, nearly all volunteers reported high levels of satisfaction,
which helps explain their continuous commitment to prison ministry despite time and
distance costs. In a following work by Tewksbury and Collins (2005), the focus was
squarely on prison chapel volunteers. Differing from the previous study where the
sample was predominately middle-aged White males, the respondents from this study
were mainly White females representing a variety of faiths, although most were
Christians. Unlike prison chaplains, the volunteers engaged primarily in activities that
are considered religious in nature, with the most frequent activity being preaching to
inmates. This study also found that volunteers felt that they were called by God to do
His work and believed that prison ministry gave them a chance to share their faith.
A recent study by Kerley, Todd, and Shoemaker (2009), distinct from previous
survey-based inquiries, took a qualitative approach to investigate the work of prison
chaplains and volunteers. Two major themes emerged from their in-depth interviews
with 30 respondents in Mississippi. First, the religious workers were careful to avoid
setting numeric goals such as the number of conversions. Rather, they maintained a
simple goal of sharing their beliefs with inmates. This helped them deal with disap-
pointments encountered in their work. Second, religious workers avoided discussing
denominational issues and focused chiefly on delivering a broad message of faith and
love. This in their minds helped deter any potential conflicts that may derail their
ministry.
Overall, prison volunteers differ from prison chaplains in that they mainly engaged
in activities that are religiously oriented. Their motivations come from feeling that
they are a part of a larger symbolic process of being used by God. The presence of
religious workers in prison symbolizes the faith-based efforts to give inmates hope and
encouragement and to improve prisoner reentry into society (Mears et al., 2006).
Previous research on religion in prisons has focused primarily on the contribution
of Christian-based prison fellowship. This may be due to its traditional involvement,
and, in this respect, Beckford and Gilliat (1998) and Furseth (2003) have stressed the
importance of studying different types of religious programming among different
denominations. The present study attempts to consider Christian and Buddhist
approaches to religious services and care in Hong Kong prisons.
158 International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology 57(2)
The Hong Kong Context
There is little information available to the public on the operations of the prison chap-
laincy and volunteers with religious backgrounds in Hong Kong prisons. What we do
know is that the prison ministry is active in all 28 correctional institutions across the
region. Human Rights Watch (1997) found that chaplains worked in harmony with
correctional staff and that there were no restrictions on religious freedom within the
prison system. Also, according to the official home page of the Correctional Services
Department (CSD), religious services are recognized as one of the rehabilitative mea-
sures for prisoners in the correctional systems:
Religious services are provided to inmates/prisoners with special emphasis on
the moral and spiritual dimensions that will help an inmate/prisoner both
now and in the future. Through the Correctional Services Chaplain, Honorary
Chaplains and volunteers from religious organizations, a wide range of spiritual
and social services are offered to all inmates/prisoners who wish to participate
regardless of their religious affiliation. The services include visits, teaching,
counseling, religious worship and recreational activities (CSD, 2011).
Other than the emphasis of chaplains and volunteers as spiritual helpers and the
types of religious services available to inmates, there is not much written about prison
chaplains and volunteers or the work that they perform in Hong Kong prisons. Under
Section 3 of the Prisons Ordinance (Cap. 234; Department of Justice, 2011), chaplains
are appointed by the Chief Executive for the provision of services to prisoners/inmates
in the penal institutions. More than 80 prison chaplain passes and about 10 honorary
chaplain passes have been issued by the CSD and all of these have been given to either
Catholics or other Christians.1 These passes allow chaplains to regularly visit prison-
ers detained in correctional establishments. Members of other faith groups, such as
Buddhists and Muslims, can be issued only prison visitor passes. Section 236(1) of the
Prison Rules (Cap. 234A) provides that the Commissioner of the CSD may from time
to time appoint any person interested in the welfare, reform, and aftercare of prisoners/
inmates to be a prison visitor. However, these passes do not allow them to visit prison-
ers without giving prior notice to the authorities. From this we can see that chaplains
of the Christian faith are granted a larger role in prison work and other faith groups are
more restricted. This is not surprising as even in its early colonial days over a century
ago, Catholic and Protestant churches have played a disproportionate role in providing
social assistance to the people of Hong Kong (Leung & Chan, 2003).
Given the dearth of information on the work of religious workers in Hong Kong
correctional facilities, the present research is exploratory in nature. In particular, we
are interested in determining (a) the types of activities that chaplains and religious
volunteers engage in and their purposes, (b) chaplains’ and volunteers’ views on the
role of religion on inmates, and (c) their views on the role of religion in inmates’ lives
Chui and Cheng 159
after their release. Throughout the analysis, we seek to ascertain whether there are dif-
ferences between the role and perspectives of the Christian chaplains and the Buddhist
volunteers.
Method
In this study, a qualitative approach was employed to explore the views and experi-
ences of 10 chaplains and 7 volunteers with Buddhist backgrounds who provide regu-
lar religious services for prisoners. During semistructured interviews, a number of
open-ended questions were asked to determine the work of these religious workers
and to solicit their views of religion in prisons. Examples of these open-ended ques-
tions included the following: What do you usually do with the prison inmates? What
do you think is the role of religion in prisons? Of all the activities, which one(s) do
you think is/are the most important in rehabilitating inmates? What kinds of support
or arrangements can you provide for inmates after their release?
Given the time and financial constraints of this study, a convenience and purposive
sampling method was adopted. In all, 10 prison chaplains and 7 Buddhist volunteers
were recruited and interviewed. Of the 10 chaplains, 4 had been granted passes for 5
to 10 years, whereas the others had more than 10 years related experience of chap-
laincy in Hong Kong. Most of the prison chaplains provided religious services to pris-
oners on a voluntary basis, and their work in prison was financially supported primarily
by their church. All of the Buddhist volunteers reported at least 3 years experience of
visiting prisoners on a monthly basis. Oral and written consent were obtained from the
participants before each interview. A total of 12 individual interviews and 1 group
interview were conducted. Each of these interviews lasted between 30 and 120 min,
the average being 60 min. All of the interviews were tape recorded and transcribed
verbatim from Cantonese to English. Thematic analysis was then conducted using the
qualitative software program NVivo.
Results
Types of Activities
Three major themes emerged from the interviews that paint a picture of the work that
prison chaplains and Buddhist volunteers conduct in Hong Kong prisons as well as
their views of the role of religion behind bars. The research participants were first
asked to comment on what activities they predominately engaged in and the objec-
tives of these activities. As expected, prison chaplains mentioned a wide range of
activities that they had organized for inmates during the previous 12 months. For
instance, two of the chaplains said,
We organize regular religious classes in over 20 penal institutions and each class
lasts for 2 hours. The content of each class is not the same. . . . Types of activities
160 International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology 57(2)
include singing hymns, praying, reading the Bible, having conversations and
reflections, watching videos, playing games, and group discussions. (C9)
We offer classes in religion, general interest topics, English, and sign language.
Some inmates in a psychiatric centre use sign language only [because of their
health issues]. . . . We organize beauty classes for female inmates. . . . We provide
spiritual counseling and hold workshops to teach inmates how to earn a living. (C1)
It is apparent that the religious workers offer a variety of activities for inmates that
are both religious and secular in nature. The religious activities mainly involve wor-
ship, reading scripture, and praying whereas many of the secular actives include teach-
ing skills, such as language learning, which are intended to be practical for the inmates
post release. An example of the success of this training was provided by one chaplain
who said,
A painting of a stone wall was produced by an inmate in a group activity. With
his permission, I took it to Canada to enter in a competition organized by an
international prison group. He won the second runner-up prize in that competi-
tion. We encouraged him to continue to paint. Moreover, the organizer of the
competition sold the painting to a person who also strongly supported rehabili-
tative intervention for prisoners. The money was then donated to support the
work of prison ministries in developing countries. They told him that the sale of
his work went to a good cause. Now, his paintings are displayed in [a church]
and he is running a business. He has an income of about HK$20,000 (approxi-
mately US$2,750) per month. (C4)
A follow-up question that was posed to the participants was the purpose of these
activities, and virtually all replied that the goal was to help inmates realize their own
potential and to help their lives to be more meaningful. One chaplain gave an example
to support this:
We discovered that some of the inmates have potential in the arts. There was for
example a music group called “[ABC] Band.” They wrote songs. I met them in
1987 and encouraged them in their writing of songs and hymns. Then, we made
a recording called “The Songs of [ABC] Band.” Further recordings were done
in [the next 6 years]. By composing these songs, they realized how their lives
could be constructive and meaningful. (C6)
The Buddhist volunteers reported greater restrictions on the activities that they per-
form in prison. Unlike the Christian chaplains who perform a variety of organized
activities, the Buddhist volunteers tend to focus on chatting and talking with inmates
only. It is through these interpersonal conversations that the Buddhist volunteers
establish a relationship with inmates. One volunteer said,
Chui and Cheng 161
It is a kind of fate that we met in the prison, and we value the opportunity to
share our views on certain issues. In particular, we talk about the past, present,
and future of our personal lives. During our encounters, we share joys as well
as tears. (V6)
Two explanations were put forth to explain the difference. The first has to do with
the nature of Buddhism itself. As the volunteer sample emphasized, Buddhism does
not employ rituals, worship, or praying but rather only seeks to promote ethical living
through the laws of cause and effect, or karma. One Buddhist volunteer clarified it in
this way: “Buddhism is concerned about our everyday life. We emphasize the law of
cause and consequence in a person’s life. We have to learn to bear our responsibilities.
We let [the inmates] know the importance of this” (V1). It is this understanding of
karma that the volunteers want inmates to appreciate. The second reason is that, as
noted above, volunteers of other faiths are not granted the same access privileges as
prison chaplains. Their passes, which are different from chaplain passes, only allow
them to have limited access to prisoners. Therefore the prison volunteers are aware of
the fact that the choice of religious activities they organized for inmates must be kept
to a minimal. Two of the volunteers made the following comments:
Usually, we talk to inmates individually. We usually visit a prison once a month
but, for some prisons, we may visit twice a month. During gatherings or in
individual meetings, we usually talk about Buddhism or the meaning of life. In
addition to visiting the inmates individually, we send letters to the inmates to
show our care and concern to those who would like to communicate with us. On
special occasions, we organize seminars on the core values of Buddhism and
how to read Buddhist scriptures. (V3)
The duration of a visit is usually between 45 minutes and 1 hour. If permission
is granted by the authorities to organize a one-off group activity, such as reading
and discussing Buddhist scriptures, this activity lasts for 2 hours or so. (V7)
It is clear that resources and time allocated for the Buddhist volunteers are much
less when compared with that allocated for the prison chaplaincy. Therefore, unlike
prison chaplains, their time with inmates and the variety of activities that they perform
in prisons are more limited.
Views on Religion in Prison
Christian chaplains and Buddhist volunteers agreed on the value of religion to the
lives of inmates and on their belief that it will assist in their rehabilitation. The chap-
lains made no distinctions between finding meaning in life and knowing God. One
chaplain explained that
162 International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology 57(2)
Activities at our gatherings are stepping stones for the inmates to get to know
us and to know God. The ultimate goal is to encourage the inmates to change
their lives, to contribute to society, and to stop reoffending. While they were
still in prison, they could see the light. (C6)
Religion for the prison chaplains is an essential part of rehabilitation for inmates, as
one chaplain asserts, “[R]eligion acts as a bridge between prison and society” (C4).
For the chaplains, instilling religious values reinforces their objective of teaching
inmates to find value in their lives, and from this new found self-esteem they will be
able to become productive citizens. The chaplains firmly believe that through their
work and through the care that they exert, they can help inmates build pious charac-
ters. For instance, one respondent said,
Religion can give [inmates] a direction. This direction can guide them towards
reaching their life goals. It can also change how they see themselves and others
in society. We need to learn to be humble and respect others. (C5)
Another said,
Our greatest power is love . . . it is the greatest thing for a Christian. I love and
take good care of [the offenders]. This is the thing that we can give uncondition-
ally. When we do so, the inmates will feel loved and learn to be patient and
satisfied. (C8)
Values that chaplains want inmates to learn include humility, respect, patience, and
gratitude, all of which are intrinsically religious and come from biblical teachings. The
chaplains explained that they explore the potentials or values that inmates possess and
encourage them to develop these, and that they teach them how they could contribute
to society. Ultimately, they aim to help inmates build or improve their relationships
with God, their families, and other people, and from this, to be able to successfully
return to society.
Likewise, the Buddhist volunteers believe that religion is crucial to the rehabilita-
tion of offenders. However, the emphasis is placed on making peace with oneself and
more importantly, understanding the consequences of wrongful actions. This goes
back to the Buddhist teaching of karma. One volunteer elaborated as follows:
Our goal is to help [the inmate] understand the consequences our evil or
immoral deeds have on ourselves. A good understanding of this law of ethics is
a kind of enlightenment for [the inmates]. (V1)
Other Buddhist volunteers also stressed that religion, in this case Buddhism, can
calm the emotional upheavals of the inmates and promote their own self-awareness,
Chui and Cheng 163
thereby destroying hatred and generating hope and wisdom. Buddhist volunteers seek
to assist inmates in finding peace and understanding within the self, whereas the chap-
lains believe that religion, meaning building Christian values, can help inmates not
only in achieving peace but also in learning how to deal with other people and society
after their release. This may very well be a reflection of the difference that each reli-
gion emphasizes.
Continued Religious Support for the Inmates
The third theme that emerged from the interview data was the importance of provid-
ing religious care to released prisoners. The participants did not perceive their work
to be limited to the prison setting. The chaplains and the volunteers reported that they
welcome and encourage ex-inmates to continue participating in their religious pro-
grams in their churches or temples. One chaplain said,
It is voluntary for [released prisoners] to take part in our religious activities. We
won’t force them. . . . In the church, they will be treated like all of us who want
to be close to our God. We won’t look down on them. (C3)
The participants also reported that a common request is to provide the discharged
prisoners with short-term accommodation and meals, and they added that at times they
mobilize community resources to address the inmates’ needs on their discharge. Both
groups found it difficult to provide inmates with financial support. The religious ser-
vices of Christians and Buddhists rely extensively on the funding provided by their
own churches or temples. However, the Christian ministry is better equipped to pro-
vide some employment opportunities, as one chaplain explains,
This is how we work . . . We provide ex-prisoners with some part-time job
opportunities. On the one hand, they learn to develop some work habits. On the
other hand, when they gain confidence they will be able to look for a full-time
job. (C10)
Again, it is evident that the underlying goal of the chaplains is for the inmates to
find meaning in their lives and to gain self-esteem, and with that be able to be self-
sufficient one day. They are aware that the inmates cannot solely depend on them.
Although the Buddhist volunteers, too, would like to continue delivering religious
services and other assistance to discharged prisoners, they understand that it is unreal-
istic to have such expectations. One volunteer noted,
In Buddha’s family we do not have a commercial environment. We are just
volunteers and most of us have a full-time job or are housewives. We are unable
to provide [the inmates] with job opportunities. . . . What we do is to encourage
them to drift away from a life of crime and to become aware of their sins. (V5)
164 International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology 57(2)
Again the limitations that the Buddhist volunteers have to face are evident.
Compared with the Christian ministry, they simply do not have as many resources.
Both groups acknowledge that there is very little that they are able to do in terms of
concrete assistance for inmates after their release from prison. What they are able to
do is welcome any ex-offender to their religious homes with open arms.
Discussion and Conclusion
Faith-based programs organized and run by religious workers have existed in Hong
Kong penitentiaries for decades, yet little is known about the work of prison chaplains
and religious volunteers. Broadly speaking, religious activities add colour to the bor-
ing (and often dehumanizing) prison life and aim to inspire inmates to turn away from
a life of crime. As suggested by O’Connor and Perreyclear (2002), most inmates
perceive their lives in prison as “meaningless,” “difficult,” and “bleak” (see also
Jewkes & Johnston, 2006; Koenig, 1995; Medlicott, 2001; Stern, 1989; Sykes, 1958).
Similar frustrations and day-to-day hardships of being incarcerated have been
reported by Chui (1999) and Gray (2006) in their qualitative studies of the experi-
ences of juvenile male offenders and female prisoners in Hong Kong. O’Connor
(2005) held the view that religious activities play a significant role in humanizing the
harsh correctional environment of prisons and in fostering hope among lost and des-
perate inmates. The participants in this study have shed light on how varied religious
practices provide prisoners with an alternative way of doing their time in prison and
hopefully inspire them to lead better lives.
Like their counterparts in the West (Sundt & Cullen, 1998), prison chaplains in
Hong Kong act not only as spiritual leaders but perform a variety of secular duties as
well, most notably skills training for inmates. This is once again an indication of the
expanding role of the contemporary prison chaplain. Compared with the Buddhist
volunteers in our study, the chaplains occupy a more prominent and established role
inside the prison. They are involved in a variety of activities and have a higher degree
of autonomy. It is important to acknowledge that prison chaplaincy is “a professional
discipline, requiring extensive training beyond that of one’s own faith group”
(Friedman, 2003, p. 90). Most of the chaplains mentioned that they received training
in how to preach their religion and to provide pastoral counseling. Thus, they are given
more responsibilities in the prison. However, none of the seven prison volunteers in
this study received this sort of training. They see themselves as people who care about
the lives of prisoners and are keen to introduce Buddhist concepts to those who are
willing to listen. Their volunteerism is attributed to their individual goodwill and altru-
ism. The Buddhist volunteers resemble the congregational volunteers in the United
States where their work is more focused (Tewksbury & Collins, 2005).
This difference in status of the two religious groups is further reflected by the
access granted by the CSD. There are three types of passes issued to faith-based groups
by the authorities: prison chaplain passes, honorary prison chaplain passes, and prison
visitor passes. The first two types of passes allow prison chaplains to visit inmates
Chui and Cheng 165
frequently, whereas the visitor passes may have more restrictions in terms of the fre-
quency of visits and the types of activities that they can organize for the inmates. In
this regard, the type of pass issued by the authorities affects the accessibility of differ-
ent faith groups to the inmates. The Buddhist volunteers, only being given the visitor
passes, are restricted mainly to informal discussions with inmates and provide reli-
gious teachings only on special occasions. This distinction may also be explained
historically: Hong Kong’s correctional system is largely modelled on the British sys-
tem, where Christianity is the dominant religious faith. Dating back to colonial times,
Christian groups have played a disproportionate role in providing a multiplicity of
social services such as that of education and assistance for the needy in Hong Kong.
The standing of the prison chaplaincy is an extension of that legacy.
Although the Christian chaplains and Buddhist volunteers maintained that religion
is integral in assisting the reformation of inmates, how they delivered their message is
different. In particular, the chaplains made no distinction between getting to know
God, finding purpose in one’s life, and becoming a responsible citizen. Although, as
observed, the chaplains perform numerous secular and religious activities, they did not
find them to be mutually exclusive but as working together toward the same outcome.
In the chaplains’ views, a better understanding of God leads to a better understanding
of one’s self, and once the inmates embraces their potential, they can develop their
skills and hopefully find successful employment on release. Then they will be able to
turn away from crime and be productive members of society. Meanwhile, the Buddhist
volunteers seek only for the inmates to find peace through Buddhist teachings. They
acknowledge that there is no set format to teach Buddhism and many of the inmates
are not religious to begin with. The volunteers are content with Buddhism making the
inmates’ time in prison be more comfortable.
Finally, distinct from Western religious workers who are satisfied with the oppor-
tunity to show their care to inmates (Kerley et al., 2009), both religious groups in our
study affirmed their hope for released inmates to receive continuous support following
release, even though they concede that they cannot force the discharged offenders to
attend their religious services. Both groups wish that they could do more for these
prisoners in terms of practical support, mainly assisting them in finding employment,
but they recognize their limited recourses in achieving this. This is especially true for
the Buddhist volunteers who do not possess the more established resources of the
church. Even for the Christian chaplains, the most that they can offer is likely short-
term employment. Again, what they hope is that inmates will find their own purpose
in life and be self-sufficient.
There are two limitations to the present study. First, the sample consisted of a small
number of research participants from two religious groups. There is a need to build on
the findings of this small-scale study to investigate further whether generalizations can
be made from the observations. Second, the study relied extensively on religious
workers sharing their general views on religion in prison. Therefore, it is suggested
that ex-prisoners, prison officers, and prison administrators be involved in future
166 International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology 57(2)
research, and their ideas and views regarding how to promote the constructive prison
experience should be incorporated alongside the perspective of the religious workers.
These multiple perspectives are often neglected in sociological and criminological
research (Dammer, 2002; Thomas & Zaitzow, 2006). This study has demonstrated that
there are significant differences between the work of Christian chaplains and Buddhist
volunteers. Prisons, in Asia and in the West, house inmates from a diversity of faiths.
Future research should also continue to examine and compare the work of religious
workers from different affiliations.
In conclusion, religion in Hong Kong’s prison system provides support, particu-
larly spiritual support, to inmates. This religious support helps inmates to rethink the
meaning of their lives, to repent of their wrongdoings, and to redefine their relation-
ships with God, their families, and society. The prison chaplains and the volunteers see
themselves as playing a complementary role to the prison officers, because they are
trusted confidants with whom the inmates can share their burdens and worries, and
who can encourage them not to reoffend. The interview data indicate that the ultimate
function of the religious activities and services is to guide inmates into leading a new
life and to transform their damaged life into a positive one.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The authors declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship,
and/or publication of this article.
Funding
The authors received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this
article.
Note
1. The figures are the estimates only; the source for these figures is based on an informal con-
versation with a prison chaplain in late September 2009.
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