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More prison chaplains needed to reduce prison violence

Monday 9 July 2018

Australian Catholic University

The number of chaplains operating in Victorian prisons needs to be increased in order to provide spiritual and pastoral care of prisoners, ex-prisoner and their families.

Prisoner numbers have increased dramatically over the past decade, with 41,202 prisoners at 30 June 2017, up from 27,224, in 2007 and more funding is required to meet the increased demand for prison chaplains.

Prison authorities, prisoner families and former prisoners all report chaplains have a key role in preventing violence and maintaining prison calm as well as supporting prisoners and their families.

The presence of prison chaplains has been shown to reduce violence and rule-breaking in prisons and provide a calming influence on the prison atmosphere. Corrections Victoria describes the Prison Ministry as ‘being a safety valve to diffuse potentially violent situations’.

National chaplaincy figures are not kept. In NSW there are about 40 chaplains for 13,000 prisoners. In Victoria, where there has been a 70% increase in prisoner numbers, Corrections Victoria says it does not keep records on chaplaincy numbers; nine faith groups are funded and management of chaplains is devolved to them.

Australian Catholic University Professor Ruth Webber has studied prisons in Australia and the United States and is the author of a study on Catholic prison ministry in Victoria. She said the research shows those who attend religious services, confide in a chaplain or simply are in the presence of a chaplain are involved in fewer infractions such as disciplinary misconduct, rule violations and violence – whether or not they have religious faith.

Professor Webber’s research found chaplains were highly valued by prison authorities as well as by prisoners, former prisoners and their families.

‘They are extraordinarily respected and they provide a calming influence on the whole prison community. They diffuse anger. No one plays up when the chaplain is there,’ she said.

Professor Webber said prisoners supported by chaplains also have less risk of depression and self-harm.

‘The chaplain is the only person a prisoner can talk to in confidence who doesn’t have to report what’s been said – unless a crime is about to be committed or there’s a risk of self-harm. To have one person who you can talk to who will be non-judgemental can really change the experience of prison.’

Another important role is in supporting the families of prisoners, a role which often falls between the cracks if there is no chaplain around. Professor Webber gave the example of one case where a man visiting from a non-English speaking country was imprisoned in Victoria. His family, located in his home country, did not know where he was and he could not contact them from the prison because it required an international call. The chaplain arranged for someone to contact the family, translate a message from the prisoner and set up calls with the prison.

Chaplains also prepare prison families for visits and release and help prisoners with practical and emotional issues from filling in forms to accompanying them to court if they have no one else to support them.

Some prisoners find or rediscover faith or religious interest through contact with prison chaplains. Others just regard them as a person to talk to. For those without faith, attending services may provide a peaceful space, a relief from boredom or just a chance to enjoy the tea and biscuits afterwards.

But Professor Webber said the advantages of contact with chaplains in reducing violence and depression occurred whatever the prisoners’ motivations.

Chaplains offer pastoral care to any prisoners when requested, regardless of whether that prisoner has nominated a religious affiliation upon reception to prison.

Academic research on whether chaplaincy programs or religious involvement while in prison reduces recidivism is inconclusive. However, Dr Webber’s research does show that chaplains can help prisoners reintegration into the community, through maintaining family ties and a sense of hope. Chaplains also connect newly-released prisoners with supportive parishes and sometimes can help them find work.

Professor Webber said volunteer visitors also play a role in supporting prisoners but they do not have the extensive training or formal position to provide the kind of support chaplains offer.
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