CoreCivic Chaplain Bonnie Conklin shares her approach to faith and reentry
Chaplain Bonnie Conklin is an eight-year CoreCivic chaplain, an ordained minister and U.S. Air Force Veteran who is highly passionate about her job at McRae Correctional Facility in Georgia, where more than 20 different religions are represented.
CoreCivic (CC): You have served as a chaplain with CoreCivic for eight years. What inspired you to take the journey into prison chaplaincy as a career?
Chaplain Conklin: After serving 10 years as a volunteer in prison ministry and nine years as a state chaplain, I felt a calling to pursue a Master of Divinity from the Church of God School of Theology in Cleveland, Tennessee. Four years later, I began working with CoreCivic as an ordained chaplain in 2009. Working here has given me the ability to touch lives of inmates who might never have thought much about spirituality or considered something bigger than themselves.
CC: When did you know you wanted to do more than just volunteer?
Chaplain Conklin: The time that I spent volunteering during those 10 years in various jails, half way houses, and prisons was very rewarding. When a position as a chaplain opened at a nearby prison, I decided to apply. Once I was in that position, I truly realized that full-time chaplain ministry was where I belonged. I felt a calling to help people change their lives for the better.
CC: What faiths do you accommodate at your facility?
Chaplain Conklin: There are more than 20 different religions represented at our facility, including Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Judaism, Gnosticism, Rastafarianism and others. It’s important that I provide each individual a way to connect with his own spirituality, no matter what form it comes in. Even though people may believe differently, we are all equal as individuals.
CC: How do you believe these programs and services help inmates prepare for reentry?
Chaplain Conklin: These programs help inmates reflect on their relationships with others and reevaluate their thinking. The emphasis on building positive life skills, character development and turning away from criminal thinking helps them develop empathy and gives them a new perspective on life, which motivates them to become better fathers, husbands, workers and citizens.
CC: What attracts inmates to engage in your programs and services?
Chaplain Conklin: I maintain an open-door policy so that inmates feel the freedom to discuss whatever is in their heart. Helping inmates feel comfortable encourages them to participate in the programs. And that’s what this is all about: faith, trust, openness, getting back to the free world and never coming back to prison.
CC: How do you build rapport with the inmates you serve?
Chaplain Conklin: I look at inmates as people first. It’s important to just listen to their needs, especially as they relate to faith or spirituality or difficult emotions like grief and anger. That helps develop a bond, and sometimes it brings them into faith-based programs, where there’s even more opportunity to build stronger relationships. The programs can help them manage through their time in prison and build the foundation needed to stay out of prison once released. They can keep building on that foundation the rest of their lives, so that they can not only stay out of prison, but thrive in their communities.
CC: How do you build community among inmates?
Chaplain Conklin: I try to bring different faith groups together to build fellowship and understanding. In addition to the 58 services at the chapel each week, we host special speakers, holiday celebrations and dessert receptions. These are a few ways that I am able to build a closer community among the inmates here – no matter what faith they may claim as their own or what they might believe. They’re all on the same journey toward reentry here.
CC: What is your personal mission or philosophy as chaplain at McRae Correctional Facility? What motivates you to fulfill that mission?
Chaplain Conklin: God is my biggest motivator. If I can help one person change his life, I am happy and I have done my job. I have learned that I can't change everyone on my own, but I can connect these individuals with their faith and with God and let Him do the rest.
CoreCivic's Reentry Services Department supports nearly 40 major religions. In 2016, 1,730 individuals completed a faith-based program at a CoreCivic facility. With the goal of reducing recidivism, faith-based programs aim to help inmates build life skills, develop positive character traits, and cultivate a stronger moral and ethical foundation.