Just before Christmas I served time as a Prison Chaplain in a Prison. It was only a week, part of the palcements that those of us at Theology College do to ensure that we have a well rounded understanding of the options that are open to us. It was a very strange experience, something that I think will haunt me for a very long time. I also hope that it will make me more understanding of the plite of those who are in Prison.
The first thing that struck me about being inside was the helplessness. I could have been asked to be let out at any time, but still following people, and having doors locked and opened for you, knowing that you can’t leave under your own recognicance. There was something terrifying about that. People who say that we are too soft on prisoners really need to feel what that’s like. What it’s like to be locked in. That is definately punishment, especially for those of us used to going where we like, doing what we want when we want it.
The job of the Chaplain is essentially to be a voice that is primarily on the side of the Inmates, and also to explain the establishment to the inmates when it doesn’t make sense. It essentially fills that grey area where infromation needs to reach all inmates, but there isn’t really a sensible way to make sure that it does. They are also, more and more, taking on the roll of councellors, as the prison service has cut down on the number of councellors available in its’ prisons, and there wasn’t as single councellor in the prison I attended, but we’ll come back to that.
The day for chaplains starts in the same way. There are 3 places that require a visit from a chaplain every day. The first is healthcare. This is the place where inmates go if they are feeling ill, it is also the palce where they go when they are feeling suicidal, or have attempted to take their own life. They are then watched 24 hours a day, in a cell with a plastic front. Two of the people who were there on watch, one seemed very disturbed, the other was just excessively sad. At the point when he needed some profiessional help.
The second place that chaplains go is Segregation. This is the palce where inmantes go who have been separated from the main prison population. This is normally as punishment for actions such a fighting or smuggling. These cells only contain a bed, and they are not allowed books or anything else to entertain them, as such, it is imperative that the chaplain comes down to check on them, make sure that this sudden and stark loss of even the small number of priveleages doesn’t push them to wanting to take their own life.
The third place that someone goes is to Detox. This is the palce where people go who are comming down off various drugs. These are normally those that come into prison still addicted. Sometimes, even high. Obviously these need to be watched because the pain and mental confusion that can occur from cold-turkey might drive someone over the edge.
While on Placement, we were to partake of various different types of activities that the chaplain does. I got to go to “initiate” inmates. On arival all inmates are asked a barrage of questions, ranging from “have you been in prison before” to “do you have any disabilities”. Some questions are asked by a variety of people, but these are the ones that I remember the chaplain I was shadowing asking. Of course, amoungst that, the question “Do you feel suicidal”, which was asked in several subtle ways. While walking around shadowing the chaplain, we met a guy who was made up to be getting out. He was (as all inmates do), promising to go straight. He had a child that had been born while he was on the inside and he was desperate to go and look after him. We talked to him a few times, because we were mostly wanting to talk to his cell mate that was in “education”. One of the people we met while doing this was an inmate who told us that the reason he was in was that he was opsessed with his Ex Girlfriend. It was violating the restraining order that had landed him in prison the 3 times he’d been in. It occured to me that we should perhaps refer this guy to a councellor, to help him with the obsession, and stop him re-offending, and deal with the heartache. When I told this to the Chpalain, he agreed, but then told me that there were no councellors, which was probably why he’d ended up re-offending in the first place. Seemed a bit barmy to me.
During my time there the men (as they were referred too) were rehersing for their Carol Service that was happening on Sunday. This was something that they were putting together with the help of some volunteers, and a Conductor from the BBC. The men had written a nativity sketch, which was meant to show what the nativity meant to them, written from their point of view. IT contained some amazing lines, like “Your from the East and you don’t know Karate?”, and “Gold, Frankinsens, and Murr, and your walking around Bethlehem at night without knowing how to defend yourself? that’s not very wise is it?” (to which the wise men responded “Wise men don’t fight”). The thrust of the play was the shepherds, who were “ordinary men”, with flaws just like the men in prison (there was a shephard who was addicted to a “poppy potion”, for example), and yet the birth of Christ was for them as well. They also had a Choir for this service. It was made up of men who volunteered (though it was difficult to see if it was “to sing” or “to get out of the cell” for some of them. A lot of them came because their friend was comming). It was impressive to see the change from their Thursday Practice (where they sounded like drowning cats), to their Sunday performance, where they were almost sounding like a Choir. It was amazing, and I found myself being proud of them.
It was, by and large, a very strange experience, as you can tell from this slightly meandering reflection. These men who were so used to having other men around would suddenly tell you things in near-public, with their eyes focused on you that you probably wouldn’t tell your best friend of several years. It is a very odd experience.
The one thing I learned about it all was how normall these people were. It’s easy to think that those that are in for life are in some way some form of inhuman monster, but their not. By and large, they are sweet, and sometimes gentle, and just like you and me. That, I think, was the scray thing. The ones I met were indeed just like you and me. They told stories and you thought.. if I was there.. then yes, perhaps I would have done the same.
I spent a lot of the week thinking “there but for the grace of God go I”. The results of spending a week thinking about that sentance are a reflection in itself.