"Prison! Me? No way!". I now know this to be the title of an innovative programme run by Prison Officers to introduce secondary school children to the realities of prison life. In 1993 however, this was my response when an enthusiastic member of my church announced "a door has opened for effective ministry in prison". Nearly twenty years later I have spent a considerable part of my life and ministry working in various establishments of incarceration in varied roles. "Prison! Me? Absolutely!"
Working in Prison Chaplaincy can be both an immensely rewarding and frustrating experience. It combines traditional church ministry as many would understand: leading worship; running bible studies; preaching and teaching; offering pastoral care, along with a radical cross- cultural opportunity. Apart from the diverse cultural mix of people in prisons, there is the culture of prison itself to work with. Chaplaincy is never dull!
Let me outline a day in the life of a Prison Chaplain:
0800 arrive at prison, meet with multi-faith team. Pick up any messages from through the night. These could include information about self-harm, death of relatives of prisoners, or messages from worried family members. At this point the team will also work out how many prisoners were admitted the previous day and agree who will go to see them. The plan for the day is shaping up.
0830 meet prisoners on their way to work; managing chaplain will often go to attend Governor's daily briefing
0845 embark on priority work - this will include visiting all prisoners who have arrived in the last 24hrs, visiting healthcare, visiting the special care and segregation unit and seeing prisoners vulnerable to self harm.
1200 ... breathe, remember to breathe ... then paperwork for volunteers' coming into the prison, religious registration, Chaplains log, etc....
1230 lunch; maybe a staff prayer meeting / pastoral work with staff
1300 begin preparations for afternoon; catch up with rest of team on how things are going, prepare for up-coming events eg Sunday worship
1345 meet prisoners on way to work in afternoon. Often afternoons are used for more structured work, eg. One to one support, resettlement work, pastoral visits, victim awareness and other structured courses, etc....
1700 evening activities. Bible studies, meditation classes, fellowship groups, music practice, informal support groups etc.... often involving management and supervision of chaplaincy volunteers.
1830 time of prayer? Ensure that any issues raised during the evening are followed through eg. Prisoners feeling vulnerable, security issues, family concerns. Complete chaplains log.
1900 Check chapel is Secure and go home!
... not to mention breaking bad news, marrying prisoners, arranging religious festivals, praying with people (staff and prisoners), having discussions about faith, escorting volunteers, ordering tea and coffee, loaning books, blessing rosary beads, hearing heartbreaking stories, attending equality / security / management meetings ....
If you are still reading then for you it is probably a case of "Prison! Me? Absolutely". If you are a minister, lay or ordained, and would like to find out more, then please contact me. Vacancies do come up from time to time, and it would be good to discuss with you how to take things forward.
All things change in life, but these three remain ... Faith, hope and love. Prison Chaplains help people discover and grow in faith, whatever that faith may be. Prison Chaplains offer hope that life can and does change. Prison Chaplains offer unconditional care and support, or love, wherever and with whoever they work. Who would want to do anything else?
Rev Bob Wilson MTh
Free Churches Faith Advisor