Unlike parish ministers, one of the advantages of being a prison chaplain is that those of us who’re not having to shield or self-isolate have been able to carry on much of our work as before, if only with a wee bit more social distancing. We can’t phone the people in our care and we can’t send them e-mails or WhatsApp them or include them in Zoom services. To do our work at all, we have to be able to see them and talk to them and we’re still doing that although, for their sake as much as ours, we’re trying to do this as safely as possible.
And just now this seems more important than ever. There are no teachers in the prisons and most social workers and psychologists are working from home. There are no counsellors coming in, no AA or NA groups, no literacy support, no volunteers and even many of the mental health nurses have had to be assigned to other duties. So apart from the officers, who are now working long 10-hour shifts, there is no-one else to talk to except the chaplains. In fact, apart from the nurses, who are run off their feet, the only civilian workers meeting prisoners face to face are chaplains.
Sadly, we’ve had some Covid-related deaths and it’s been difficult not being able to do more for the families than we can. Chaplains are the main point of contact for families after any death in custody but my support in the two deaths we’ve had has been limited to phone calls and then delivering their loved ones’ property to their homes and having a socially distanced conversation two metres from the doorstep. It’s deeply humbling how grateful the families always are for what seems to me a very meagre level of support but it’s symbolic of how bravely so many people are coping with this pandemic.
Yet for some of the people in our care the lockdown, and the loss of most activity inside prison, has been very difficult. Chaplains always get a lot of referrals for bereavement but with more time to think some people in prison find that past griefs come more to the surface, and other losses, like the breakdown of relationships, become more painful and harder to deal with. I seem to have spent a great deal of time in this past couple of months listening to quite horrendous stories of loss and some accounts of abuse which are unlike anything I’ve ever heard of outside of atrocities committed in wartime. Frequently I feel absolutely inadequate and wonder how it’s possible for any of these hurts to be repaired but so often the men are just grateful and relieved that someone has listened to them, maybe for the first time, and we just have to pray that this is at least a step on the way to healing.
I know parish ministers and many others are doing some remarkable work during this crisis and sometimes my work seems very limited in comparison. But working in a prison is often, believe it or not, quite inspiring. Just now it’s amazing to hear how much understanding and sympathy the men in Low Moss have for everyone outside, not just their own families.
It would be encouraging to think that when the ‘new normal’ comes about these feelings might be reciprocated and a kinder, fairer, more understanding normal might embrace those who are in prison as well. When you hear the stories that prison chaplains listen to every day you come to realise that most people in prison are in need of healing more than punishment. From the very top down there are many of us in the prison service who want to spend more time and resources on this healing work, the kind of work that Jesus spent so much of his time doing. But to do this there needs to be, in society as a whole, a kinder, more compassionate mood towards many of the people who end up in prison and this has to be part of the ‘new normal.’