Prison chaplains can turn the lives of prisoners around by providing mediation, counselling and support. Just don’t call them a soft touch, writes Kathy Walton...
Being locked up for several hours a day with murderers, rapists and violent drug dealers may not be everyone’s idea of a dream job, but according to prison chaplain Rev Phil Chadder, having a captive audience is a huge blessing.
“Prisoners have time on their hands and because everything else they have done so far has failed them, they are open to reflecting on life’s big issues,” he says, before adding, “Prison is actually the easiest place to do Christian ministry.”
Chadder, 49, is a former probation officer who became a Church of England prison chaplain after deciding that “prisoners needed the gospel more than just good social work.” He spent eight years as chaplain at HMP Brixton, before taking charge of the training and development of prison chaplains of all faiths in May 2015.
So what are the qualities you need to be an effective prison chaplain? The key job requirements are, he says, being available, accessible and highly visible on the prison wings; and supporting staff who work in a tinder box environment where violence can erupt at any moment.
And bags of common sense, too. Chaplains need to be extremely savvy about the games prisoners play, as Chadder explains: “I often have to say ‘I’m here for you, but don’t take me for a mug,’ because prisoners will always try it on, especially if they think the chaplain is a soft touch.”
He mentions one inmate who asked him to break one of the first rules of life behind bars by posting a book on his behalf; it was, he said, a guide to giving up alcohol for his father-in-law. Just as well that Chadder refused: when the package was examined, officers discovered that it contained deeply offensive material, intended for the son of the woman the prisoner had raped.
Being vigilant is part of a chaplain’s job description, as is the ability to be both cynical and idealistic at the same time, according to Chadder. “We have a deep rooted belief that even the most difficult people can change, together with a real awareness that we are dealing with manipulative people who don’t always tell us the truth. But I know the worst thing about them, which makes it very hard to keep their mask on. I can turn any prison conversation within a minute into a bigger issue to explore.”
Once those big issues are explored, Chadder says that many prisoners come to faith when they start to see themselves in a new light. “Gang members in particular have often had no father figure at home. They have a very poor view of themselves and more than anything else, we help them redefine themselves.”
He recalls how one offender did just that when a theatre company visited Brixton. The young female director homed in on a chunky looking guy, thinking (appropriately enough, given his record) that he would make the perfect lead for a play about knife crime, only for him to refuse. “That’s what I was, not what I am now,” he told her.
If male prisoners’ self-esteem is pretty low, then women prisoners’ sense of self is often at rock bottom, according to Amina, who has been a Muslim chaplain since 2004 and is now Managing Chaplain for all faiths at a women’s prison in the Midlands. Much of her work is with women who struggle with addictions. Sadly, many suffered abuse and neglect as children and were coerced into crime by men.
“The women often feel ashamed to be in front of me as a prisoner, but I say ‘I’m here and you’re there, but it could be the other way round.’ I want them to feel valued and to know someone cares about them,” says Amina.
There is plenty of evidence that confident women are less likely to re-offend and for Amina, seeing a prisoner change from the inside makes all her efforts worthwhile. Her chaplaincy runs a confidence course designed to restore women’s self-esteem. The course is led by volunteers, which is a boost in itself.
“The volunteers get nothing back themselves, which has a big impact on the women, because [the volunteers] are giving their time for no gain, out of the goodness of their heart, which makes the prisoners feel valued as human beings,” she explains.
“I love being present when they are searching for something and when you make a difference to them, they flourish. The best part of my job is that I get so much back, far more than I give them.”
Chadder has a similarly uplifting story. “We had Terry, this real bull of a man in Brixton who had been a serious gangster, who converted in prison. When he sang Amazing Grace with tears running down his face, it gave permission to all the other hard nuts to come to chapel.”
When Terry was asked to write a poem for Good Friday, he drew on his own experience of violence to craft an unflinching description of the blood and pain of the crucifixion, which he set to music – to stunning effect. In fact the poem marked the start of a remarkable spiritual and professional journey; since leaving prison, Terry has worked with a charity running film production courses for young people.
As with Terry, much of the work of prison chaplaincies is geared towards preparing offenders for life after their sentence, which is often where volunteers come in. One such, Roger, worked alongside the chaplaincy at HMP The Mount in Bovingdon to help prisoners with job applications and interview techniques.
He says that for a man with no previous qualifications, even the smallest reward means everything. Some prisoners are taught to read; others learn skills such as carpentry or painting. “One prisoner did a gardening course and got a little certificate. It was the first qualification he ever received and he was overjoyed.”
Roger also ran the Prison Fellowship’s Sycamore Tree programme, a restorative justice course that takes its name from the Bible story of Zacchaeus the tax fiddler, who hid in a sycamore tree until Christ beckoned him down and acknowledged him, as a result of which Zacchaeus later made amends to those he had cheated. The course was piloted at The Mount in 1998 and is now run by some 40 chaplaincies in England and Wales, where research indicates that it reduces the rate of re-conviction by 28 per cent.
Quite simply, Sycamore Tree aims to cut re-offending by helping prisoners to understand the impact of their crime on their victims and to accept responsibility for their actions. Many prisoners start out believing that their crime was victimless (if they committed fraud against a company or stole a car that was insured, for instance), but after meeting a victim on the course, their attitude changes. “By the end of the course, it is rare for them to say this,” says Roger. “You see them change when they realise that by being inside, they too are the victims of their own crime and so are their families.”
Another Sycamore Tree volunteer, Petra, the mother of three adult children, goes into Category A prisons around the UK to tell violent men what it feels like to be the sister of a woman who was tortured to death by intruders in her own home.
“A lot of the men can’t look at me when I tell them. Lots cry. Often they tell me how much they respect my courage in talking about it and because I can forgive,” says Petra. “They always ask if I’d like the death penalty for the men if they are caught and how sorry they are. I say no [to the death penalty] and that I’d like them to turn their life around and that if just one man changes his life, my sister wouldn’t have died in vain.”
After her talks, Petra often receives letters from prisoners (written anonymously and cleared by prison staff first) that are full of contrition. Best of all, she says that chaplains report a turnaround in the men after her visits.
“It’s as if the penny drops. They don’t give their victim a second thought until they are confronted by a victim, but lots of men see the chaplain after the course and I hear that their attitude gets better.”
And confronting criminals has brought about a change in Petra’s perspective too, as she explains. “I was angry and frustrated that no one had been caught for my sister’s murder. I had a real axe to grind, but as [the prisoners] walked in, I had an overwhelming sense of empathy and love for them. I saw my own two boys who could have made a wrong turn and realised that there but for the grace of God go we all.”
Chadder describes his vocation as “the best job in the world.” It even has its comic moments, as was the case in Brixton when Chadder invited Jonathan Aitken (the former Tory Cabinet Minister and Old Etonian imprisoned for perjury) to speak in chapel. Aitken found his faith while in Belmarsh Prison.
“There was this wonderful ten seconds when I could see the men thinking ‘who is this plummy guy?’ It took a while for them to realise he was one of us. When they realised Aitken had once sat where they were, it really helped.”
• Amina, Petra and Terry are pseudonyms; Phil and Roger have shared their real names