Home Community Corrections The Psychology and Sociology of Spiritual Care

The Psychology and Sociology of Spiritual Care


Prison chaplains provide spiritual care to inmates. They are aware that the concepts of altruism, avoidance and alienation directly impact the inmates materially, socially and mentally.

Altruism is the idea that a person performs an act of kindness that will help others, but will either provide no benefit or a loss to them (Anderson, 2007). This psychological concept can be found in most world religions, including Christianity. In Luke 10:25-36, Luke writes about the parable of the Good Samaritan. In this story, a man is beaten, robbed and left for dead on the side of the road. Three men walk by him as he is dying: a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan. The priest and the Levite do not stop to help him, but the Samaritan does. The Samaritan dressed the man’s wounds, brought him to an inn and gave the innkeeper money to provide the man with whatever he needed. Prison chaplains can reference the Samaritan’s behavior to explain altruism to inmates.

Chaplains apply altruism to their own teaching of spiritual care. They apply altruism by donating their time, energy or money to their work. This behavior is taken from the parable provided above. Discussing religion with inmates does not directly benefit chaplains, but they donate their time in the hope that they are bettering another’s life. This is like the Samaritan who uses some of his personal time and energy to dress the man’s wounds and then transports him to the inn. Helping this man would have greatly slowed the Samaritan down, but he does not mind sharing his time and energy. Then he continues to give the innkeeper money so that the man can be cared for. Sharing his time, money and energy did not directly benefit the Samaritan, but he did it because of his altruistic nature.

The sociological term avoidance describes the way people or groups migrate to a new group for social purposes (Parrillo, 2015). In a prison setting, many inmates are under the impression that being a member of a religious group will protect them from physical confrontations, blackmail and sexual exploitation (Dammer, 2002). They may also become involved with the religious services to receive access to food, books, musical instruments or holiday cards for free. Some also use religious services in the hope that the chaplain will grant them favors such as access to phone and written communication to the outside, or as a reference when requesting parole or a transfer (Dammer, 2002). These examples show how powerful avoidance is in the prison setting because an inmate can be easily swayed to a religion for social purposes or benefits.

It is important that a chaplain is conscious of avoidance when they are providing spiritual care. A chaplain may believe that the members of their religious services are strong in the faith and that the sermons are appropriate for them, but that may not be true. Since the inmates can be in the services for a wide variety of reasons, the chaplain must communicate with the inmates and see if they are grasping and understanding what is being preached. Paul was an apostle of Jesus Christ and an early founder of the church. He was famous in the community of early Christians but he still possessed this same struggle when he was writing to the Corinthians. He wanted to preach to them as if they were spiritual beings, but he could not do this because they were still infants in Christ, they needed milk instead of solid food (1 Corinthians 3:1-2). The chaplain needs to ensure that they are providing the correct “food,” or spiritual care, for the inmates. This can only be done if avoidance is considered.

Alienation is a sociological term that has been described by the Marxist author Raymond William’s as, “providing evidence of the extensive feeling of a division between man and society” (Yuill, 2011). In a prison, inmates are removed and isolated from society. Humans are naturally social creatures that need to constantly connect, express and communicate their emotions with others (Baumeister and Leary, 1995). Prison is not a suitable place to emotionally connect with other people and satisfy the need for human connection. This creates an internal struggle in the inmates because on a fundamental level they need connection, but if they act upon this it can make them appear weak or it can ultimately endanger them.

It is important for prison chaplains to be aware that the inmates they are working with may be experiencing alienation daily. These inmates most likely will not come out and tell anyone that they are struggling to connect with others or that they feel alienated, but the prison chaplain should always consider this as a possibility when working with the inmates. Speaking openly about human needs with the inmates, is a part of the chaplain’s spiritual care. This allows the inmates to feel comfortable opening up about issues they may be having. Allowing inmates to feel safe expressing their need for human connection instead of being emotionally distant can allow them to experience the human connection that they have missed since being alienated from society. Overall, a chaplain integrates open communication and emotional awareness into their spiritual care to help offset the alienation felt by many inmates.

Terms such as alienation, avoidance, and altruism may not seem like terms that a prison chaplain needs to have in their vocabulary, but if spiritual care is to be properly provided these are essential tools.

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