Prison Chaplains and the Pandemic - Responses to Covid-19

PRISON CHAPLAINS AND THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC

Prison Chaplains are having an especially difficult time as the coronavirus sweeps through British prisons. Overcrowded and insanitary prisons are the ideal breeding ground for any virus, and the population which has poor general health is particularly vulnerable.

At present, about a quarter of all prison officers are not at work, due to sickness or self- isolation. This causes most prisons to put inmates under 23 hour lock-downs nearly every day. This is quite unlike those of us who are confined to our homes outside. They don’t have access to education, work, recreation, the library, or even worship in the prison chapel, but are confined within a small and often gloomy and smelly cell. While all our churches, mosques, temples and synagogues are closed due to the pandemic, prison chapels are also closed.

Every prison has a multi-Faith chaplaincy team. The Managing Chaplain is formally a member of the prisons Senior Management Team, with only the Governor and the Medical Officer. There are full-time Anglican, Roman Catholic and Muslim chaplains, and usually part-timers from the other main Christian denominations, the Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, and Sikh faiths, and sometimes a Pagan chaplain. There will also be a list of additional chaplains who are on call, these will include Rastafarians, and Ministers who can attend to the needs of several language minorities. Some of these chaplains are ordained and supported by lay volunteers. They work as a team under the direction of the Managing Chaplain and share out daily duties, which include interviewing all new prisoners, very soon after reception, and seeing every single person held in “segregation”, either for punishment, or for their own protection. This latter duty can be crucial, as it may place the chaplain as a “whistle-blower”, if he, or she observes or learns of incidents which indicate that an inmate might have been a victim of violence or abuse. All chaplains are employed by the Prison Service but, within the prison, exercise a sensitive balance of independence.

Every prisoner is entitled to request a visit by a chaplain, without being required to explain the reason. Such messages are passed to the chaplaincy office and a member of the team, probably of the appropriate denomination or faith, will respond quickly, for a private discussion in the inmate’s cell. Chaplains of all faiths often talk of the importance of helping, distressed prisoners to identify sources of hope. For some, a time in prison might be a place of relative safety, and a chance to think about future agency and new beginnings.

Prison chaplains are responsible for the religious education, guidance and support of all inmates and for organising worship for all those who wish to attend and take part. There will usually be one service each week for the main Christian denominations and major world faiths, held in the prison chapel, or other specially designated space, which, in the case of Muslims, includes facilities for ablutions. Christian chaplains will often also arrange special sessions for religious education, Bible studies, confirmation classes and Muslim chaplains Quranic studies et al. Prison chapels are seldom elaborately decorated, partly because they must be suitable for use by several faiths, but they are often visibly different from the usual rather grim prison architecture, and include portable items which can be put in place by each chaplain, to suite their congregation. There is usually seating for one, or two hundred inmates, and services are often attended by a few lay volunteers who welcome attendants and support the chaplain.

An unusual exception to these quite modest chapels is at HMP Wormwood Scrubs in London, where a huge ecclesiastical building dominates the central square of the prison. Carved Stations of the Cross surround a raised alter and the knave could seat at least four hundred . It is said that the Prison Service decided to demolish this building several yeas ago and replace it with an additional cell block, but Willie Whitelaw, then Home Secretary, intervened to prevent this. The chapel is now frequently used for events such as displays and recruitment processes by potential employers, as well as worship.

Another duty for the chaplaincy team relates to the death of family members of inmates. Not surprisingly, with 1,000 to 1,500 mainly young and middle aged prisoners, the deaths of parents or grandparents occur quite frequently , during custodial sentences. Each of these deaths calls for bereavement counselling , or support from the appropriate chaplain, and there are often extra family visits to arrange, or accompanied visits under escort to attend funerals. The bureaucratic arrangements are quite onerous and fall entirely upon the team.

The chaplaincy team play a very important role in organising the celebration of all the main religious festivals. In prisons these are often shared between members of different faiths. Hidu and Christian chaplains can be seen enjoying the food and ceremonies relating to Eid Al Fitr, in the Islamic calendar, arranged by the Muslim chaplain. Christmas Carol Services are often joined by prisoners of many faiths and none, with a level of interest and engagement seldom witnessed outside. Such events only achieve this level of inclusion as a result of sustained work by chaplains and make good use of the chapel as a place for social intercourse and a welcome alternative to a lonely cell.

The place of religion within a prison could be expected to be very different from the intentions which influenced the design of many British prisons in the 18th and 19th centuries. Indeed, the practice of their faith is probably not a high priority for most of the men, women and children as the barred gates close behind them. However, it is quite clear that the chaplains play a valued role, as they are seen to be independent and trusted people who can hear all about very confidential fears, and personal and family details.

Attending services in the chapel is not a casual affair when a prisoner may just decide to drop in if he or she feels so inclined. The inmate must first submit a request, usually 24 hours in advance, to attend a particular service. This is then processed, so that an officer is authorised to collect a group, one by one, from their cells. They will then be escorted along wings, across yards and through numerous barred gates, closing and locking each one, until they all reach the chapel. This journey will be repeated several times, by different officers, from various parts of the prison, until the lists are completed and the service can commence . During the service, the escorting officers can usually be seen sitting around the edges of the congregation. At the end of the service, the whole process is repeated as all the prisoners are escorted, in small groups, through the prison until they are again locked into their cells.

While the prisons are under coronavirus pandemic lock-down and many staff are off duty due to sickness, or isolation, there are simply insufficient officers to undertake some of the very labour intensive tasks of escorting prisoners from cells to the chapel, or to other daily activities, such as work and education. Prisoners must thus remain in. their cells, often for 23 hours every day, sleeping, reading, eating their meals from trays, using the lavatory and just living in the same small gloomy cell. In these circumstances, they are not only in coronavirus imposed social isolation, but in compulsory physical isolation and deprivation.

Chaplains often find it necessary to talk with and support small groups of prisoners, or reach more, who need support and encouragement, at services and discussion groups. At present they can only attempt to communicate with their flock, one at a time, through each steel cell door. They consider that the value and effectiveness of their ministry is thus trimmed down to what they describe as an unacceptable level.

While no doubt all ministers of religion are frustrated by the closure of their places of worship, it is evident that many of them have exploited remote and digital means of communication very imaginatively. When people cannot attend their own church, they can usually find another peaceful space, in their own home, garden, or a local park. These potions are not open to prisoners or chaplains. When most ministers address their congregations, in church, in their homes, or remotely, they know that some are distressed, or worried, for a wide range of reasons, but others will be safe, reasonably comfortable and at peace. For the prison chaplain, the prospect could not be more different. He, or she knows that nearly every one of the men, women and children there is angry, anxious, fearful, resentful, worried and often in poor mental health. Many are also aging and at greater risk of coronavirus complications.

The prisoners, their families, the staff and all the members of the multi faith chaplaincy teams need the well informed thoughts, interest and prayers of people outside the prison walls.

An article by John Plummer, Coordinator of London Prisons Mission: johnplummer@londonprisonsmission.org

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