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USA: meeting spiritual needs in immigration detention centres
26 August 2010

John Krambuhl
The information I gathered about religious care for detainees helped JRS/USA in its efforts to support federal legislation that guarantees immigration detainees access to adequate religious services.
John Krambuhl worked with JRS USA, focusing on the religious needs of immigration detainees in US government-sponsored detention facilities.  Afterwards, John joined the faculty of Jesuit High School in Tampa to teach Theology and Ethics. John offered these reflections on his time spent with JRS USA.

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann once described the prophet’s role as having two tasks.  The first is to name suffering, to give it voice, to bring it out into the light of day.  The second is to lead people out of suffering, to give them hope for a new reality of peace and justice.

A true prophet criticises an unacceptable status quo in which people are suffering and then energises people to hope and action, leading them out of their suffering to a better reality. Moses was the quintessential prophet as he gave voice to the Jewish people’s suffering in Egypt, and then led them out through the wilderness to the Promised Land.

During this summer I have served as an intern at Jesuit Refugee Service/USA.  In a brief month and half I resonated deeply with its mission of giving help, hope, ear and voice to refugees and displaced people.  This mission is nothing less than a call to bring suffering into the light of day and to lead people out from this suffering to a new reality.  For me, JRS’s work is prophetic.

My work focused on the conditions of immigration detention, specifically detainees’ access to religious services. During a visit to an immigration detention facility in June, I witnessed first hand the suffering of detainees.  Separated from their families and awaiting potential deportation, it seemed clear to me that they were isolated and afraid.  Even though many of them had no prior arrests, they were mixed in with the general criminal population, and were thereby vulnerable to physical and mental abuse.  I heard stories of detainees sitting in jail for months, uninformed about when they would see a judge or be deported.

Under these conditions, quality pastoral care is a great solace.  Religious services in a detainee’s own faith tradition provide a measure of emotional stability during a chaotic time, and bring an element of calm to the detention facility as a whole. JRS/USA understands the importance of religious services for immigration detainees and is dedicated to ensuring that chaplaincy programmes consistently and adequately meet the spiritual needs of detainees.

To better understand exactly what religious services are available to detainees, I phoned detention facilities nationwide and inquired into their chaplaincy programmes.  I found that many detainees do not have adequate opportunities to worship while they are incarcerated.  Some do not have access to religious literature such as Bibles and Korans, and others are not afforded the comfort of meeting with a religious leader of their own faith.  Accredited, non-proselytising chaplains are often unavailable to detainees, leaving volunteers and recreational officers to manage religious services.  While a spirit of good will pervaded in the volunteers and officers I spoke with, often they did not have the background or resources necessary to provide quality pastoral care.

The information I gathered about religious care for detainees helped JRS/USA in its efforts to support federal legislation that guarantees immigration detainees access to adequate religious services.  Our visits to the offices of Senators and Congressmen to discuss our findings and ask for support often found a sympathetic response from both sides of the aisle.

My hope is that legislation improving the conditions of detention facilities is passed soon.  As recent reports by 60 Minutes, The Washington Post, and The New York Times have made clear, improved medical care for detainees is sorely needed.  And just as quality medical care is essential to the care of the body, religious services are vital to the care of the soul.  Both body and soul must be attended to in order to ensure that basic human dignity is upheld in our immigration detention facilities.    
By giving voice to the suffering of immigration detainees and working to bring about a more just and humane detention system, JRS/USA carries forward a prophetic mission.  Given the vagaries of the political process, we can often feel like Moses in the wilderness, but it is the cries of those who suffering that guide us together to a land of promise.