The inmates in Block B at the Nash Correctional Institution bide their time playing cards or watching two television sets covered by metal grates.

They also get religion, nurtured by prison Chaplain Sidney Dunston.

"A lot of people cry out in trouble. That's why he's there," said Frank Robinson Jr., a convicted murderer from Charlotte. "It's the presence of a godly man who can give you some advice."

But North Carolina's budget crunch has prompted legislators to slash the number of state-employee chaplains. Dunston, a Baptist minister, is the only full-time chaplain left at Nash, which holds as many as 650 mostly violent offenders.

Other states have made similar reductions, but the cuts are deepest in North Carolina, where lawmakers dropped 23 chaplains last fall after cutting seven positions the previous year, bringing the number of full-time prison chaplain jobs to 36.

"Why do they single out state-funded chaplains?" asked the Rev. Paul Rogers, president of the American Correctional Chaplains Association. "The chaplain is sometimes the conscience of the institution."

Others question the use of tax dollars to fund religious activities.

"I actually think it would be more appropriate to have volunteer chaplains," said John Hood of the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh, a conservative think tank. "You have to make some priorities in state government, particularly in these times."

Chaplains and prison leaders say the short-term financial solution could lower prisoners' morale and slow their spiritual growth.

"You can go through prison, or you can grow through prison and be a better person when [you] get out of here," said Dunston, a Nash chaplain since 1995.

He and other state-employee chaplains are required to work with the beliefs of at least 11 religions of which there are "offender followers," according to the state's Chaplaincy Services manual. They include Rastafarian, Asatru, American Indian and Wiccan, of which John Raper is a follower.

"The chaplain has been a big help to me," said Raper, 31, serving a 231/2-year sentence for breaking and entering and an attempted sexual offense.

While Dunston, 58, does not endorse Wiccan beliefs, he does supervise Raper's ceremonies and provides him candles, fruit and juice.

"It's going to be a great task to find volunteers who are willing to help a John Raper or facilitate a Native American prayer circle," he said.

In South Carolina, about half the 47 chaplains left during 2001, mostly through early retirement as the Corrections Department faced cuts of $33.6 million. Connecticut eliminated four part-time chaplains in the past few months as the state government eliminated 3,800 positions.

"It has certainly presented challenges to all of our staff," said Brian Garnett, a Connecticut corrections spokesman.

Georgia fired nearly all of its 78 state-employed chaplains in 1991 as part of a $400 million budget reduction. It eventually rehired many to part-time positions without benefits.

North Carolina's Correction Department was ordered to cut $70.4 million and eliminate 366 positions.

"It was a question of essential services versus nonessential," said state Rep. Phil Haire, the co-chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that recommended eliminating the chaplains' positions this fall. "It was a question of having food, security guards and medical care."

The department strongly opposes eliminating state-employed chaplains, said Keith Acree, a department spokesman.

The work of volunteers is important, he said, "but the full-time paid chaplains who are in the prisons day in and day out, they are the ones who understand the intricacies of the system."

State-sponsored chaplains have more education and training than the thousands of unpaid volunteers or community-funded ministers who work part time at local prisons.

"There are a lot of limitations about where they can go and what they are willing to do," said the Rev. Bill Hall, one of two chaplains at the Western Youth Institution in Morganton, which has 750 prisoners ages 13 to 18.

"You can't call a volunteer in the middle of the night to respond to a prisoner who has died," said the Rev. Woodrow Hudson, chaplaincy services director for Georgia's prisons.

Chaplain Sidney Dunston, right, talks with Frank Robinson Jr. at the Nashville, N.C., prison. A state budget crunch has led to the dismissal of about half of the chaplains. Dunston is the the only full-time chaplain at the high-security prison for 650 mostly violent offenders.