According to the Pew Research Center, there are more than 4,000 world religions, and 80% of people say they identify with a religious group. Even though the majority of the population practices one of the three most common world religions—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—the chaplains at the Pinellas County Jail are trained to connect all inmates with the spiritual or religious resources they need, as well as counsel them through challenging times.

“By law, inmates are entitled to practice their religion even though they are incarcerated,” Senior Chaplain Karen Hanson said. “Keeping in mind that safety and security is a priority, we ensure that they have whatever they need to practice their religion.”

Before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chaplain’s Office was administering 60 religious services a week, and many of them were led by volunteers from the community. Some of them included Muslim Jumah Prayer, Buddhist Meditation, and Bible studies like “The Purpose Driven Life” in both English and Spanish.

To help prevent the spread of the COVID-19, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office transitioned the chaplains to meeting with inmates one on one and communicating with them through a computer messaging system. In July of 2021, they received about 3,000 requests for assistance with religious needs.

Between the three full-time chaplains, one part-time chaplain, and an administrative assistant, the office stays busy delivering books to inmates, notifying them of a family member who has passed away, completing wellness checks, ensuring religious dietary needs are met, and encouraging the inmates.

Beyond working hard to support inmates’ religious needs within the jail, the chaplains also keep their futures in mind and help prepare inmates for life outside of the criminal justice system.

“We always say to them that if you don’t have a plan before you leave, chances are you are going to go straight back to what you know,” Hanson said. “We try to do the best we can to connect them with churches in the community, spiritual mentors, or faith-based substance abuse treatment centers to help them stay away from criminal behaviors and addictions.”

Recently, Hanson heard a former inmate’s testimony at Countryside Christian Church in Clearwater. She shared that she suffered from very low self-esteem as a teenager and became addicted to drugs and alcohol. For 27 years, she was in and out of the Pinellas County Jail and the Florida prison system, but in 2018, she went to a church service inside the Pinellas County Jail and became a Christian.

“The hope those messages gave me helped me decide it was time to surrender my life to God,” she said. “After I was released from prison on May 31, 2019, I went to Countryside Christian Church and was welcomed with open arms and loving grace. They became my church family and today I enjoy serving at Helping Hands, being a church greeter, and participating in women’s Bible study.”

The average length of stay at the Pinellas County Jail is 28 days, but some inmates receive longer sentences. Chaplain Wilson, who has been with the PCSO for two years, says that often the chaplains are there to help inmates during very pivotal moments in their lives, whether they have just found out about a parent passing away or that they are receiving a life sentence.

Recently, Chaplain Wilson counseled a man who had received notice of his mother passing away and became very angry, causing him to go into confinement. The corporal working in the pod requested that a chaplain visit him. After talking to the inmate and encouraging him, his entire demeanor changed and he said he felt much better.

“I’m everybody’s chaplain,” Wilson said. “Even the atheist. This isn’t always about religion. They are often looking for someone to be present with them during their suffering. We are here to give them hope and let them know someone who cares is there for them.”