Prison Chaplaincy: Never A Dull Moment
By Andy Drozdziak
As financial pressures continue to affect the prison service, it is important to highlight the importance of prison ministry and volunteering. Low staffing levels matched with rising prison numbers is a worrying combination, as Bishop Richard Moth, lead bishop for prisons for the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, recently underlined.
“We have 83,000 people in prison,” he said. “Our society resorts to imprisonment quite easily; sentences have got longer, and we imprison people largely in Victorian buildings designed for incarceration, not for rehabilitation.”
Loneliness, isolation and desperation among prisoners was this week highlighted through the death of an inmate who died from smoking mamba at HMP Nottingham in September 2017. Delivering a narrative verdict, the jury said Anthony Solomon was denied medical attention due to a delay in answering his bell. The delay “denied Anthony the opportunity to receive the timely medical attention he deserved.” Officers were told to answer calls from inmates, which could be up to as many as 300 times a day, within five minutes, the inquest heard. It would seem that many prisoners are largely left alone, which can lead to isolation, hopelessness and depression. It is in this loneliness that a chaplain or volunteer can be an invaluable assistance. The ministry of prison chaplaincy is an effective way of responding to Christ’s words: ‘I was in prison and you visited me.’ (Matthew 25:36)
“What Can I Do?”
Bishop Moth recently led a prison ‘roadshow’ for parishes, which highlighted the importance of prison ministry and care for prisoners. He invited attendees to consider the question: “What can I do?” He encouraged individual Catholics and parish communities to explore how they might get involved in prison ministry. He also pointed to the work of PACT (Prisons Advice and Care Trust) and similar organisations which offer hope to people affected by imprisonment. Parishioners were particularly moved by a talk from Jamie, an ex-prisoner who is now working with PACT. “In 1997, I murdered two men,” Jamie said, before outlining his journey from knife killer to someone who is seeking reconciliation and help. “I consider every day a privilege,” he said, “and it all started with my first visitor on my first day in prison, a priest called Fr. Frank.” He spoke about how he had repented of his crime and prayed for his victims at their families. A practising Catholic, Jamie encouraged those in attendance to think about how they might make a difference to those in prison. The ongoing influence of “Fr. Frank” upon Jamie is crystal clear. Former cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken was sent to prison in 1999 for perjury and now works as a prison reformer and chaplain. Speaking of the inspiration behind his ministry, he said: “Jesus himself was a prisoner. He certainly wants us to do something for the “Least of the brethren”. Hope is in very short supply in prison. I saw a huge gap in the market. Prisoners are not fashionable.” He also mentioned the influence of St Benedict when speaking to prisoners. “St Benedict says: ‘When you meet somebody, talk to him as if you are talking to Jesus Christ.’ I try to do this when I meet prisoners-and it helps when they tell me to go away!” he said.
Leading Prisoners from Despondency to New Hope
Cardinal Nichols has compared prison chaplaincy to a ministry of accompaniment, similar to the Emmaus story in Luke’s Gospel where Jesus gently leads despondent disciples to new hope. “The work of prison chaplains reminds us of the Church’s mission of accompaniment and invites us to share God’s genuine mercy,” he said.
Fr Stephen Coker from the Diocese of Westminster was a full time Prison Chaplain for the last 11 years at HMP Highdown (Banstead, Surrey) and HMP Pentonville. Commenting on his ministry, he emphasised the variety of activities. “I have had everything, from someone wanting to kill themselves through to someone wanting to know what to do with their washing-and everything in between,” he said. Having now moved on to new challenges, he recalls that “there was never a dull moment. I was never bored.” Reflecting on Bishop Moth’s question of what we can do, he said: “How can you help with prison ministry? Firstly, pray for prisons, prisoners, staff and chaplains. If you have time or opportunity, write to the Catholic chaplain at your local prison and see if they need volunteers. I had excellent volunteers who came in to help at Sunday Mass. We are grateful for funds. I bought vestments, books and prayer books with money that had been donated. Satisfying the demand for religious objects and pictures is an on-going problem, given the ever-changing population. Rosaries are particularly popular, but only the plastic type fastened by string are allowed in prison (i.e., nothing with metal). Other gifts of rosaries and miraculous medals were also gratefully received from other sources. Try also to welcome any ex-prisoners you meet, especially any who come to Mass in your parish.”
Bearers of the Gospel Behind Bars
Pope Francis’ vision of a prison system is one that creates people anew. In an audience with staff and prison chaplains last week, the Holy Father encouraged the penitentiary staff to always recognise the “irrepressible dignity” in the face of “wounded and often devastated humanity.” “Lay the foundations for a more respectful coexistence and therefore for a safer society,” he told the police and administrative staff. He also thanked prison chaplains and volunteers for being “the bearers of the Gospel within the walls of prisons.”
His focus is very much on rehabilitation and restoration. The way in which we treat criminals is a good measure of our society, so let’s pray for our prison chaplains and volunteers. They are bringing the hope of the Gospel to prisoners and helping build the Kingdom of God “on earth as it is in heaven.” We might also ask ourselves the question Bishop Moth posed to parishioners during the prison ‘roadshow’: “What can I do?”
Picture: Archbishop Philip Tartaglia celebrates Mass at HMP Barlinnie in the presence of the relics of St Thérèse of Lisieux. (Sancta Familia Media)
What are your views on prisons? Email: email@example.comTags: catholic, catholic bishops, Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, Catholic Church, Church, Nottingham, Pope, Pope Francis, prison, prison chaplains, St Benedict