Convicted terrorists lead religious services in federal prisons: IG

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Convicted terrorists – some associated with al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and al-Shabaab – have been allowed to lead religious services in federal prisons due to a shortage of chaplains, according to a recent report from the inspector general evaluating the Bureau of Prisons.

Additionally, the office’s internal watchdog discovered that prison officials had little control over what was said or taught during some of the inmate-led church services.

The Inspector General’s July report said convicted terrorists had organized religious services in four of the 12 federal penitentiaries included in the assessment. In one prison, terrorist inmates conducted religious services even though the BOP hired a contract religious service provider because inmates had disagreements with contractors, according to the report.

“In another of these establishments, we discovered that an inmate affiliated with al-Qaeda, who was convicted of terrorism charges, was authorized to run services on a frequent basis,” notes the IG report. . “The institutional chaplain explained that the inmate was chosen to lead the services by other inmates in the faith group because of his extensive knowledge of the faith and fluency in Arabic.”

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“In two other institutions, we learned that detainees with ties to two prominent terrorist groups, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Al-Shabaab were authorized to lead services, at least of which one did it regularly at this establishment. “, the report continues.

The investigation revealed inadequate monitoring of inmate-run services.

“We observed real-time church services at six of the institutions we visited to determine the quality of the BOP’s video surveillance systems within its chaplaincy services,” the report said. “Based on our observations, we found that video surveillance equipment was inadequate in five of the six institutions we visited.

On February 18, 2020, photographed prisoners stand outside the federal correctional facility in Englewood, Colorado.  (AP Photo / David Zalubowski, file)
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On February 18, 2020, photographed prisoners stand outside the federal correctional facility in Englewood, Colorado. (AP Photo / David Zalubowski, file)

The IG report recommends that the “BOP strengthen existing policy to include clear guidelines on when inmates can be permitted to conduct religious services, which inmates should be prohibited from directing services, and minimum requirements of. monitoring for inmate-led religious programs or services. “

The Prisons Office is already adding chaplains and will tackle other issues, BOP spokesperson Emery Nelson said.

“The BOP is revising agency policy to provide clear guidelines on inmate-led religious services and to strengthen chapel security measures,” Nelson told Fox News in an email. “Like all policies, this revised draft is awaiting negotiation with the national union.”

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The inspector general’s audit said about 70% of federal inmates identify with a religious denomination. Based on BOP guidelines, it should have 357 chaplains and 122 church service assistants – but it only has 236 chaplains and 64 assistants, which is about 30% lower than BOP guidelines.

About 84% of BOP chaplains were Protestants, but only a third of federal inmates identify as Protestant. Meanwhile, the remaining 37 chaplains represent seven additional religions. Catholics and Muslims are particularly under-represented.

The ratio for Muslims is 176 inmates for every religious chaplain, contractor or volunteer, according to the report. For Catholics, this is a ratio of 48 inmates for a religious leader, and a ratio of 22 to 1 for Protestants. About 16 religious groups in federal prisons do not have chaplains.

Fewer chaplains, contractors, or volunteers qualified for a specific group makes an inmate-led church service more likely in that specific group.

“Of particular concern was the potential for an inmate to use a religious leadership role to engage in prohibited activities or as a method of gaining power and influence among the prison population,” says the IG report. .

The First Step Act, a prison and criminal justice reform bill signed by President Trump in 2018, provided additional funding for prison chaplains, said Nelson, a spokesperson for the BOP.

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“In FY21 [fiscal year 2021], the BOP has added several chaplaincy positions under the First Step Act, ”said Nelson. In addition, the BOP has drafted updates to the agency policy to provide greater flexibility to hire more chaplains in more denominations by allowing exceptions to the general policy that chaplains must be of a certain age, have a university degree in theology and have taken courses in interreligious studies. “

The IG report also said federal prisons were not taking advantage of remote religious services, which were common in places of worship during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“And to take advantage of the use of technology, the BOP will purchase video conferencing equipment to enable the broadcast of church services and faith-based programs from the chapels on the ground through the facilities,” Nelson said.

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