The federal government is restoring religious counselling services to some non-Christian federal prisoners in British Columbia, but officials deny they are reversing cuts made last year.
Last year, the Correctional Service of Canada terminated 49 part-time contract employees, saying it would save $1.3 million. Eighteen of those contractors provided services to Muslim, Jewish, Sikh and other non-Christian prisoners.
The part-time chaplains were to be replaced with a mix of volunteers, 71 full-time Christian chaplains and two full-time Muslim chaplains.
However, CBC News has learned at least four of the part-time chaplains are being offered a chance to return to work. All four provided service to non-Christian inmates.
57% of inmates Christian
There were nearly 23,000 inmates in federal custody in 2011, and a large majority of them identified themselves as Christian:
- Catholic: 37.5%.
- Protestant: 19.5%
- Muslim: 4.5%.
- First Nations spirituality: 4%.
- Buddhist: 2%.
- Jewish: Less than 1%.
- Sikh: Less than 1%.
Buddhist chaplain Charmaine Mak says she's eager to resume working with prisoners.
"They've been cut off from spiritual development and education, so I think that's a really good step for them," Mak said.
Despite this week's written offers to Mak and at least three others, Corrections Canada says they have not reversed their original decision to cut the part-time positions.
Instead, media relations adviser Sara Parkes said, the government is taking interim measures to meet the needs of inmates until they can roll out a revised plan for spiritual services.
Rabbi Dina Hasida Mercy says many of the non-Christian inmates have received very little religious guidance in recent months.
She says religious counselling pays off because it helps reintegrate prisoners into society.
"It's not like the work went away, only the contract no longer existed," Mercy said.
Mercy says some prisoners feel betrayed, while others have launched a lawsuit against the government alleging religious discrimination.
"As a chaplain, the main thing is to get back into the prisons and meet with the people. That's what we do," Mercy said.