WASHINGTON –– A survey of about half of the nation’s state prison chaplains found a majority believes religious extremism among prisoners is fairly common, though they say that is related more to racial or religious intolerance than posing any threat to prison security.

The study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life is apparently the first of its kind to question prison ministers about their work. The survey asked about the availability and type of ministry offered, the role of religious life in prisons, and how religion may play a part in rehabilitation and re-entry into society.

The study based on interviews with 730 of 1,474 paid prison chaplains in all 50 states was released in Washington March 22. The study did not include chaplains at federal prisons.

A majority of the chaplains who answered the survey are overwhelmingly male, middle-aged, white and evangelical Christian. They said they are highly satisfied with their jobs and think the correctional system works pretty well at maintaining order, meeting religious needs and providing self-improvement programs.

Those chaplains also concluded that there’s a lot of switching religions among the inmates, with Islam the faith most likely to have converts.

More participants said they saw high rates of conversion to become Muslims or Protestants. Other faiths stayed about the same size or were shrinking. For example, 51 percent said Islam is growing in their prison, while 37 percent said it’s staying about the same and 7 percent said it is shrinking. The chaplains thought some faiths are losing more adherents than others, notably Catholicism, Buddhism, Mormonism and those categorized as the “unaffiliated.”

Sixty-one percent of the chaplains said the number of Catholics has stayed about the same at their prison, while 20 percent said it’s shrinking and 14 percent said it’s growing.

The chaplains said that the kinds of extremism encountered tend to be mostly related to intolerance of racial or social groups, or religious exclusivity. Just 23 percent said religious extremism sometimes or almost always poses a security threat.

Pew senior researcher Stephanie Boddie said at a news conference where the survey was released that there’s little hard data on religious affiliation and practice in prisons. While prisons keep information on the faith of prisoners, it’s not generally available to outsiders. She noted that the information in the survey reflects the chaplains’ opinions of the situations in their prisons.

Cary Funk, senior researcher at the Pew Forum, said that “some switching of faiths might be pretty short-lived,” explaining that changing one’s religion may be motivated by the perception that there might be privileges to gain, such as special foods or a chance to observe extra holidays.

In a response to the survey, John DiIulio, a professor of politics and religion at the University of Pennsylvania and a former director of what was called the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, emphasized that the survey reflects opinions, not facts, and that they are the opinions of mostly white, evangelical Protestants.

He suggested that perspective might skew the chaplains’ impressions, thinking, for instance, that extremism is very common among Muslims but uncommon among Protestants.

DiIulio said one area noted in the survey can be confirmed with other data, particularly that violence behind bars has decreased significantly in the past 15 years, a time period that coincides with laws allowing more religious practice in prisons, and the growth of faith-sponsored rehabilitation programs, much of it in public-private partnerships.

“It is extremely important that we know more about the work that they are doing,” DiIulio said.

Tom O’Connor, a former administrator of religious services for the Oregon Department of Corrections and one-time Carmelite friar, cited a study conducted for the American Psychological Association that connected religious involvement among prisoners with a notable decrease in infractions.

“It’s a way of finding meaning,” O’Connor said. “It helps people cope. When I was working as a chaplain, I didn’t care what you believed, I just wanted you to believe something.”