I was in prison...

Wednesday 15 October 2014
A report on the work of Catholic Prison Ministry in Victoria was launched at the Cardinal Knox Centre on Tuesday 7 October. The report by Prof. Ruth Webber, I was in prison … An Exploration of Catholic Prison Ministry, was commissioned by Catholic Social Services Victoria and CatholicCare. It builds on interviews and literature to explore the operations of prison ministry in Victoria. Dr Ruth Webber is a distinguished sociologist and an honorary Professor at Australian Catholic University. Here, Prof. Webber explains the report’s findings.

IT is rare to hear the voices of prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families particularly about their spiritual and emotional needs.

A recently released report about the impact of Catholic Prison Ministry Victoria does just that.

The report gives insights into the roles that priests, chaplains and volunteers play in supporting prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families both inside and after a prisoner’s release.

It also addresses the role that parishes can play in assisting ex-prisoners to re-connect with their faith and a worshipping community.

In total, 33 people were involved in the study including ex-prisoners (14), family members (4) prisoners (5), chaplains (5), volunteers (3) and others (2).

Prisoners and ex-prisoners talked about the ways in which chaplains helped them cope with prison environment. Four male ex-prisoners indicated that there is a strong chance they would not be alive today if it were not for the support they received from a chaplain.

One ex-prisoner said, ‘I was depressed and I didn’t have the will to go on. I would have been happy if I went to sleep and didn’t wake up and I thought about that a few times...  She’s unbelievable, she’s like someone who has been sent down to help us.’

Members of the ministry team provide a service to prisoners that no-one else in the prison system can supply. Prisoners said that they would discuss with complete confidence their fears, concerns and vulnerabilities as well as their spiritual concerns.

One woman said, ‘If for some reason the chaplaincy wasn’t there, I don’t know what those women would do. The prison officer’s role is quite separate.’

Chaplains present a message of forgiveness and hope in a non-judgmental manner that gives prisoners the impetus to settle down and to start to think about a way forward.

A male prisoner said, ‘The chaplains help us accept our fate as well, to be accepting of where we’ve found ourselves and not being judgmental as to why we were in prison.’

Life in prison was described by ex-prisoners as one of loneliness, isolation and depression. Some prisoners have no family or friends to visit them but the chaplains and volunteers help to reduce their loneliness.

One man said, ‘She made prison more bearable by always being there, someone to talk to, someone who listens to you.’

Prisoners and ex-prisoners said that the message of forgiveness and hope imparted by the ministry team improved their self-worth, affirmed their humanity and provided them with the assurance that God loves them and chaplains will support them. Prisoners appreciated the opportunity to attend Mass.

Ex-prisoners and Ministry team members agreed that prisoners were calmer when they left the chapel. One ex-prisoner explained it this way, ‘The space does reduce tension, it just tends to calm me ... It’s very soothing, it helped me cope.’

Chaplains also sought to support the families of prisoners, a practice that prisoners found re-assuring and comforting.  ‘It was really helpful to know that someone was keeping an eye on your family.’

Members of the worship and hospitality group are volunteers and are usually rostered on a monthly or fortnightly basis.

A volunteer described the role thus: ‘We identify with them and build a sense of solidarity. We do whatever we can to help them through their struggles. We do not judge them—we just stand with them. We share their story and are there for them if they want to talk to us. We are just ordinary people who come and see them.’

Chaplains put some ex-prisoners in touch with a parish near where they lived and they found the parishioners welcomed and included them. They reported that this helped their healing and rehabilitation process.

In a few instances, family members said that they felt that they were stigmatised by members of their local parish and did not receive the understanding and support that they needed.

More training about prison work for priests and other parish leaders would help them to assist parishioners to welcome and include ex-prisoners and their families in the faith community. 

Volunteers spoke about how rewarding they found this work: 'To be part of the prisoners’ lives is a real privilege.'

More volunteers are needed in this worthwhile but often forgotten ministry. If you are interested in volunteering or supporting this vital ministry, please contact Sr Mary O'Shannassy SGS, Director, Catholic Prison Ministry Victoria, on cpmvic@ccam.org.au or call 9287 5577.

To read the report, see www.css.org.au.

Photos by Fiona Basile, Kairos Catholic Journal


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