The pay is relatively low, the hours are long and the burnout comes rather quickly. The career lasts an average of five years.
"It's a pressure type of ministry," said Doug Hoy, director of chaplains for Good News Jail and Prison Ministries, the largest chaplain supplier in the country.
Eight Good News chaplains and three unpaid associates minister to 3,150 inmates in this region. For some local and state prison chaplains, the decision to accept a congregation behind bars was not an easy one.
"I was reluctant. It wasn't fear, but I just didn't feel much of a call," said Wayne Blythe, 42, who ministers at the Deerfield Correctional Center in Southampton County, Va. " . . . I guess I thought of prison as a hole where we stuff people. But you find out these are people who have a lot of hurt. Their needs and hurt get in your blood."
Richard Moyer, 33, chaplain at the Fairfax County jail, said he had had a problem with drugs and alcohol and had committed crimes, so he felt a kinship to the prisoners and wanted to let them know that change was possible.
Moyer, who has been involved in prison ministry for about five years, said he sometimes looks at an inmate and wonders, " 'How did you even survive to this point?' You talk to a man who has lived out of garbage cans since he was 12 . . . a man who really has had no life to live."
Their work -- rehabilitation through rejuvenation -- is anything but easy, the chaplains agree.
Norman Tate, 38, has been a chaplain at Lorton Reformatory for four years. "To go to a mother's house and tell her that her baby boy, 20 years old, has been stabbed to death by some prisoner . . . I have done that on more than one occasion," he said. "Sometimes I can still hear the mother's screams days after."
Blythe recalled a grieving inmate at Deerfield who had killed his own child and was trying to understand how he could have done it. "What do you say?" Blythe asked.
Prison life "can be overwhelming," agreed Gary Powell, 38, who has ministered at Virginia's Southampton Correctional Center for about three years. "Sometimes all we can do is provide an ear, but we can't change the situation. The fact that we can't . . . stirs the pain within me."
Moyer said he spends the first hour of each day at the Fairfax County jail on his knees in prayer. "I don't know how other chaplains deal with it, but if I didn't do that, I'd be a wreck," he said.
Others, such as Alexandria jail chaplain John Poffenberger, say they rely on support groups to express their feelings and frustrations.
Most chaplains put in a 60-hour week and work one weekend day. For local chaplains, the daily routine consists of early morning study, discussions with administrators, inmate visits, Bible classes and sermons. Chaplains also find ministers of other faiths for prisoners who request them.
With the exception of the District, local governments in the Washington area do not pay for jail chaplain services. Good News Jail and Prison Ministries provides chaplains to all but the District and Howard County, and the chaplains are asked to make 10 contacts per week in their community to help raise the money for their salaries, which range from $18,000 to $27,000.
Virginia also does not pay its six full-time and 16 part-time state prison chaplains, who are provided by the Chaplain Services of the Churches of Virginia, which solicits funds from churches throughout the state. The chaplains, who are paid from $22,100 to $32,150, serve 25 state prisons and 30 road gangs.
Maryland provides funding for chaplain services at its state prisons. There are four full-time chaplains, who are paid between $23,000 and $33,000, and several part-time chaplains and volunteers ministering to 12,827 state prisoners, according to a Division of Correction spokeswoman.
The District has seven chaplains, assisted by 65 volunteers, ministering to about 7,900 prisoners. The chaplains are hired by the District government and are paid from $28,000 to $58,000.
As local jails and state prisons continue to fill, the ministers say there is a need for their work, and for more chaplains.
"The spiritual part helps the man figure out who he is, by finding out who God is," said Tate, who ministers at Lorton.
"We often find that the root of the men's problems is spiritual," said Poffenberger, the Alexandria chaplain. "There must be a regeneration of the spiritual life. Without that, there is no hope for help."
"When a man hits the prison yard, he is being looked over. And the other inmates are not looking for his strengths, but his weaknesses. They will try to steal his heart," said Russell Ford, director of adult services for Chaplain Services of the Churches of Virginia. "People are bought and sold in prison. For the most part, it is a violent society."
"Sometimes you get the feeling that you just want to hit somebody," said Shawn Hickman, 22, in the Alexandria jail on a drug conviction. "But having the Word, having the chaplain here, and this kind of fellowship is what keeps me from doing it."
"Once you step inside these doors, you are stripped of your dignity," said Jim Brown, 22, also in the Alexandria jail on a drug conviction.
The chaplains try to restore that dignity -- "Just talking to the men and being a friend" is how Moyer described it.
A female inmate at the Prince William/Manassas jail said chaplaincy volunteers were the first people ever to show her love, chaplain Elton Glenn said.
John Ward, 32, who is serving 14 years at Southampton for forcible sodomy, told a short story to describe what chaplain Powell has meant to him: "My father and I were not very close. He tried to tell me right; I didn't listen. After I got in here, my father got cancer. I came and told Gary Powell how I loved my father and needed him. This man went to my father and told him. My father came here. I guarantee that no other individual would have done what he did for me."
Their message does not always get through, the chaplains said, and ultimately it is up to the inmates to decide whether to change their lives.
Jim Brown is one who has vowed to do so. "I look at it like this: I'm blessed," he said. "The way I was living on the street, I could have killed somebody or been dead. I was caught up in the material world. When I get back on the street, it's going to be different."