Calling “Sister T” – a reflection on Prison Chaplaincy

prison-barsDuring a Sabbatical after 20 years in Palliative Care, I became aware of a plaintive and persistent call, ‘I was in prison and you visited me’ Mathew 25:36. My first response was, Oh, not so sure about that Lord! But now, after 8 years as a Prison Chaplain, I can say it has been a challenging and happy ministry.

I remember the first time I walked into a large Cat B, Male HMP (Her Majesty Prison) as a volunteer. I was immediately struck by the towering high walls, fences and metal gates. The Roman Catholic Prison Chaplain, Fr Alan, accompanying me, used his Radio confidently, making crisp military style requests and responses. It was a bit daunting at first but when I met some of the prisoners I felt at home.

Later when I was appointed the Roman Catholic Chaplain at another Prison, I became very aware of the need for Security, unlocking gates, locking gates and double checking that you have locked that gate! As a Religious Sister of Charity, Prison Chaplaincy follows in the tradition of our Foundress, Venerable Mother Mary Aikenhead who began visitation at Kilmainham Gaol in 1821 at the request of the Governor, the ministry continues today in many areas.

So having received the mandatory Security Clearance, Induction Training, ID badge and the all- important keys, I was ready to go. The keys became for me personally, a symbol of the possibility of opening doors into the lives of prisoners.

The new Chaplain joins a Multi Faith Team, which reflects the diversity within the prison. The full extended team will include Church of England, Roman Catholic, Free Church, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, Pagan, Buddhist, Jehovah’s Witness, Mormon and others as required. They work together to ensure prisoners have the opportunity to practise their Faith while in prison. The Chaplaincy Team in any prison strives to model tolerance, good humour and openness in a sometimes tense diverse atmosphere.

Prison Staff were very welcoming and soon I could hear calls for ‘Sister T’ over the Radio to attend a wing. I grew in admiration for Prison Officers who manage to keep a professional calm even under extreme provocation in potentially life threatening situations. Some officers quietly shared stories about injuries received and yet could show compassion and understanding.

The Chaplaincy Team is an integral part of any prison and team members take active roles in all area of prison life, attending various meetings and acting as advocacy for the prisoner voice. The daily round of duties include meeting new prisoners, visiting the sick on the wings or in Hospitals, visiting the Segregation Unit and meeting with those on Suicide Watch.

All new prisoners are seen within 24 hours of their arrival at a prison by a Chaplain. Their own faith Chaplain will be informed of the arrival of one of their flock! Meeting the new prisoners was always one of my favourite duties. After we got past the ‘what is a nun’ question, what no man, no children! Then I would reassure them that I had more than 300 kids at the last count! These interviews are a key part of helping prisoners to settle and identify what issues are causing distress. I came to realise Prisoners often disclose to Chaplains issues such as bullying, intimidation or suicidal thoughts. There are well used support processes that can help prisoners through difficult times.

The initial interview ensures a number of points are covered. Is the Prisoner’s Next of Kin aware of their transfer? This brings to the surface issues around family, relationship breakdown or bereavements. The Chaplain confirms the religious status, this allows the prisoner to talk about faith in his life and possibly, giving it all another try. Finally, the Chaplain asks how the prisoner is coping, for many men just having a safe opportunity to talk honestly about what has happened, their offence, the impact on partner and children will be enough to get them through the days.

There is a dark and increasingly common reality in prisons today, as substance abuse becomes more of a problem. It is often at the root of much of the violence, bullying, debts and paranoid thoughts among prisoners. This has led to one of the most frustrating and distressing situations for staff, as all are caught up in an endless cycle of firefighting in an effort to preserve young lives. The long term damage to cognitive ability of these chemical cocktails is unknown but seeing the current effects, where men are unable to think or act rationally and just deconstruct their lives and relationships, presents a terrifying future.

Prisoners often talk with Chaplains about their life story, their path from childhood to prison; I was surprised that some younger men were quietly grateful to be in prison. These men, who are street scared and street wise, have seen the worst effects of crime on family and friends. As one lad told me when Gang issues had led to the deaths of friends on the outside, ‘if I had not been banged up, I would be flowers on a fence by now’ they have in some ways grown up in Prison and are desperately hoping for a future better than their past.

As the Roman Catholic Chaplain, I found that many of the younger men had retained little if any of the Catechesis they had received as children and were generally confused about their faith. For many, the Religion they indicated, if not Nil, was often that of their Grandmothers. Much of the knowledge they had, appeared to come from Media and the Movies. The ‘Gospel according to Dan Brown’ sparked off many interesting questions and lively discussions as I tried to clarify some fundamental tenets of the Christian Faith! Joe, an older man, was surprised to learn after we had studied the Nativity accounts, that Joseph was not the father of Jesus, as I begun to explain, he pointed out earnestly that Joseph was in all the photos! When I queried this, Joe told me, yes, you will see them at Christmas!

In the RC Study group, this may be the first time prisoners encounter the Gospel and many find it compelling. They have a particular empathy and affinity with Christ when we study the Trial and Passion accounts. Judas gets immediately condemned as a ‘grass’ with no mercy! Their assessment of the arrest and trial, lead to calls of ‘a proper stitch up’ as for poor Mary Magdalen, she is met with prejudice however she does get full credit for ‘not legging it’ and staying by the cross on Good Friday. Their reflections and comments are challenging as they explore scripture with a fresh eye that our years of familiarity can dull.

As prisoners move through their sentence, many change for a variety of reasons, sometimes having missed out on so many milestones in the lives of their children or loved ones; they begin to tell you, ‘this is all a mug’s game’ and ask for help in their Victim Awareness work. This can be a painful process, as they begin to face up to the offences they have committed and its impact on others, they hope, they are not that ‘man’ any longer and have moved on.

The Sacrament of Reconciliation can provide a new beginning at this stage. Many prisoners who have not been to ‘Confession’ since their school days, may have little understanding of what’s involved yet instinctively know in their hearts that this is a sacred moment of grace and mercy, that allows them to leave it all behind and not drag it out the Gate with them. But there are lots of questions, what to say; No, don’t worry, Fr Simon has heard it all before and worse! No, he will not ‘grass’ on you. 25 years of stuff? Well, perhaps just the highlights then, time is limited! John was so happy after confession that he told everyone that it was the best ‘high’ he had ever had and recommended everyone to try it!

It is a great joy when someone discovers the person of Christ as a man, who lived a human life, got arrested and sentenced to death, but who understands our weakness and loves us no matter what we have done. We may as Prison Chaplains only get the chance to plant seeds but I believe with God’s grace they will grow and flower in a better place.

Like all Prison Chaplains I met overwhelming and constant need on a daily basis, Sometimes I felt I had nothing to give these men in their anguish, but a snatched minute of listening before another lock up, a smile and a ‘Good Morning’ John or Frank. But as I walked into the Prison each day at 7.30am I prayed, remembering I was Church and a presence of Christ in this place. In the mystery of our communion together as Christians, ‘I was in Prison’ and you came with me, as Church and with your prayers.
Sr Mary Teresa Clarke

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