Muslim imams working in Canadian federal prisons say if inmates are being radicalized behind bars, it's in part because chaplains aren't being given enough time to build relationships with prisoners already radicalized or at risk.

Two Muslim chaplains spoke to CBC's French-language service, Radio-Canada, on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak with the media.

They said radicalized inmates can step in to fill a spiritual void for other inmates because chaplains rarely have one-on-one meetings with inmates, and those meetings usually last less than 10 minutes.

"Someone who is already radicalized can go to a prison and know more about religion than other prisoners," one of the chaplains told Radio-Canada. "Others could view them as scholars or imams."

Travelling takes too much time

The chaplains also say they spend too much time traveling between different federal prisons – and not enough time with vulnerable inmates.

One imam told Radio-Canada he is so frustrated that he is thinking of quitting his job.  He said he does not feel he can complete his mission, partly because Canada's correctional service does not understand the needs of Muslim inmates. 

Correctional Service Canada spokesperson Sabrina Nash vehemently rejected the two chaplains' allegations, saying federal inmates are thoroughly monitored, and religious rights are respected.

Volunteer work?

Correctional Service Canada privatized its chaplaincy service in 2012.

The president of Kairos Pneuma Chaplaincy – the agency which has provided chaplains to all Canadian federal prisons since then – said he believes chaplains want to help stem radicalization, but they are limited in what they can do.

"There's never enough resources to do what we see needs to be done," John Tonks said. "That speaks not only to Muslim chaplains but also to all other faith groups."

Tonks said some chaplains go beyond their paid work hours in order to help inmates – essentially working as volunteers.

Nash denied that. She said the CSC checks in with each prison to determine the number of hours worked by the chaplains.

Radicalization risk

Correctional Service Canada (CSC) has said that of the approximately 14,000 federal prison inmates in Canada, about a dozen of them are known to be radicalized Muslims.

The CSC said that number will likely grow, as several individuals are awaiting trial on terrorism-related charges.

The head of Montreal's anti-radicalization centre, Herman Deparice-Okomba, said the federal government should take heed of the chaplains' warning.

"Are our rules and procedures fit for this reality?" Deparice-Okomba asked.

"It's not a negative debate: It's a much-needed discussion."

with files from Bahador Zabihiyan