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The Life and Times of a Prison Chaplain

by Fr Stephen Coker

For the last 11 years I have been a full time Prison Chaplain, five years spent at HMP Highdown (Banstead, Surrey) and subsequently six years at HMP Pentonville which is near Kings Cross and has just passed its 175th anniversary.

When I was first ordained in 1996, I worked with people with mental health difficulties which later helped me with my work in prisons. Attached to Feltham parish, I began ministry in prisons by helping out at Feltham Young Offenders. I’ll never forget the first time I went into prison and the electronic doors slid shut behind me. The thought flashed through my mind, am I ever going to get out of here?

Eventually, my time in a mental health project came to an end and I felt I had a calling to the prison ministry. I started at HMP Highdown. Like Pentonville, Highdown was a category B local prison which, unlike Pentonville, was a modern, purpose-built prison for those on remand and those serving short sentences.

Prison is a very different sort of ministry. Chaplains are employed by the Civil Service with permission of the Bishop so are subject to line management and work in a multi-faith chaplaincy team. Chaplains of all faiths work very closely together. I have been very fortunate to work in excellent teams with very supportive colleagues.

What do chaplains do all day apart from drinking lots of tea and coffee? My day usually started early and, by 8am, I was catching up on e-mail and answering phone messages before attending the Governor’s morning meeting at 9am for senior staff/department heads. This was an opportunity to receive the report of the previous days incidents from the duty managers on staffing levels and events for the coming day. It gave me a feel for the mood of the prison and what was going on as well as a chance to see colleagues from all over the prison.

Chaplains have to do statutory duties; all new prisoners, all those in healthcare and those who have been segregated (either for their own protection or for breaking the rules) have to be visited daily by a chaplain. These tasks are divided out between the chaplains on duty. After that there is time for other work, such as visiting prisoners who had requested to see me, hearing Confessions and some administrative work. Additionally, those on suicide/self-harm watch are visited by their faith chaplain weekly.
There are various meetings to attend, such as suicide and self-harm prevention, reviewing those prisoners who had been segregated and meetings with outside agencies, e.g., Irish Chaplaincy.

The work was never boring and I was never quite sure when a Catholic prisoner asked to see a chaplain (usually spelt wrongly) what it would be about. I have had everything, from someone wanting to kill themselves through to someone wanting to know what to do with their washing and everything in between. Part of the job is knowing what you can and can’t deal with. For example, I never got involved in legal matters as I had no expertise. A chaplain was usually in the office answering the phone, often from concerned relatives and also from staff requesting we visit prisoners.

As a Catholic team what do we offer? Turnover of prisoners in both prisons where I ministered was on average only eight weeks, although some were there a lot longer; it is like an ever-changing congregation.
I offered the sacraments including a well-attended Sunday Mass, plenty of Confessions and a weekly Eucharistic service for vulnerable prisoners who were separated, usually by the nature of their offence or sometimes for their own safety, and didn’t feel able to attend Sunday Mass.

We also had a Catholic group during which we studied a Catholic catechetical course called Faith Inside. The group also celebrated Lent with Stations of the Cross, when possible Eucharistic Exposition, and we used the opportunity to introduce the Rosary by saying a decade. I also blest many cells for those feeling ‘spooked’ by something, blest people, rosaries and religious objects which are extremely popular.

Perhaps one of the saddest things we have to do as chaplains is to deal with death and serious illness. We had to verify the death of a prisoner’s relative for accuracy. If the family wished we would then inform the prisoner. Prisoners are only allowed to attend the funerals of close relatives; if they couldn’t or didn’t want to attend we would offer them prayers in the chapel as near the day of the funeral as possible. This is a difficult time for both prisoners and their families on the outside as it enforces the separation. We prepare the paperwork for prisoners attending a funeral or visiting a dying relative. Needless to say, other family and relationship difficulties were often discussed with us.

I always regarded my ministry to staff as being very important, especially as the prison service has had difficulties over the past few years with the endless battle with drugs and gang culture. This varied from talking to duty managers about how the weekend was going, to sitting in an office being available and listening to personal difficulties. Prison staff also have a good sense of humour on the whole, so much laughter is heard around the prison.
How can you help with prison ministry? Firstly, pray for prisons, prisoners, staff and chaplains. If you have time or opportunity, write to the Catholic chaplain at your local prison and see if they need volunteers. I had excellent volunteers who came in to help at Sunday Mass. We are grateful for funds. I bought vestments, books and prayer books with money that had been donated. Satisfying the demand for religious objects and pictures is an on-going problem, given the ever-changing population. Rosaries are particularly popular but only the plastic type fastened by string are allowed in prison (i.e., nothing with metal). The Catenians were generous in supplying not only rosaries but also cards on how to say the Rosary and Rosary prayers. Other gifts of rosaries and miraculous medals were also gratefully received from other sources. Try also to welcome any ex-prisoners you meet, especially any who come to Mass in your parish.

Pope Francis commented to a reporter from a newspaper in Argentina about how everyone makes mistakes, everyone sins, and, if one’s personal history and circumstances were different, he or she could be that convict. When visiting a prison, Pope Francis said, ‘I think to myself, “I, too, could be here.” That is, none of us can be sure that we would never commit a crime, something for which we’d be put in prison.’ He went on to say about prisoners ‘They haven’t had the opportunities that I have had of not doing something stupid and ending up in prison. This makes me cry inside. It is deeply moving.’

After 11 years I applied for parole and have been released from full-time chaplaincy to seek different challenges.
I enjoyed my time inside where there was never a dull moment, I was never bored.

I thank God for wonderful colleagues and some good people among the prisoners whom I have met and had the privilege to minister to.
Sunday 11th October marks Prisoner’s Sunday in the Catholic Church of England and Wales. On this occasion, prayers are requested for prisoner’s, their families and the many prison staff and chaplains for their work and support.