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Monday, 19 September 2011 11:14

Honouring our chaplains in prisons

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At the opening and blessing of the chapel at Sydney’s Silverwater Women’s Prison in June this year, Ron Woodham, Commissioner of Corrective Services for NSW thanked chaplains for their valuable work with inmates and staff.

He said chaplains are called on to be everything from counsellor, to good listener, a helping hand, to providing spiritual guidance.

“They are a rock in times of grief and tragedy and can offer the immediate support that a family or loved ones are unable to provide. Without the support of chaplains over the years I’m sure that the State’s correctional system would have had much greater stresses placed on it, certainly at the human level,” Commissioner Woodham said.
 
Many of our Religious men and women are those ‘rocks’ in times of grief and tragedy. We only need to read some of the stories in this edition of Pathways and on the CRA website to get an insight into this vital ministry.
 
We thank those Religious for their crucial role in supporting people who are often forgotten by the rest of society.  Our chaplains remind us that prisoners are people; people who have often made mistakes and sometimes have committed terrible crimes. But they are people who need people to care about them and show support; and to believe that they will take responsibility for their actions and be able to turn their lives around.

As Father Peter Carroll msc, chaplain at Long Bay and Silverwater Prisons and president of the Australian Prison Ministry Association says: “I think everybody’s worth a second chance; that’s why the Church is here (in prisons), and that’s what it’s all about, forgiveness and coming back.”

This Sunday, Social Justice Sunday, we have the opportunity to celebrate the work of chaplains and all who work to bring hope and support to prisoners.

In their Social Justice Sunday Statement, Building Bridges, Not Walls: Prisons and the Justice System the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) urges all Australians to think about the conditions in our prisons. They also encourage us to ask the question: who are most likely to find themselves there and why?

The statement points out that between 1984 and 2008, while rates of crime either stayed steady or fell, the number of Australians in prison per 100,000 people almost doubled.   It also alerts us to the fact that the majority of Australian prisoners come from the most disadvantaged sections of the community: the underprivileged, those suffering mental illness and especially indigenous people who make up 2.3 per cent of the Australian population but about a quarter of those in prison. The incarceration rate for young indigenous people is even higher.
While the Bishops point out that there will always be a need for prisons, they say it is time for Australians to ask what they expect from their prison system.
 
Inspired by the message and ministry of Jesus, they present us with five challenges: to confront fear campaigns about law and order; to address the social factors that contribute to crime; to maintain the dignity of prisoners; to help prisoners after release; and to seek practical alternatives to imprisonment.

These are not easy challenges but ones our chaplains confront and consider in their experiences with the women and men in our prison system. 

Just as Jesus never neglected outcasts and criminals, our chaplains seek them out and in doing so live out the Gospel message in Matthew 25:31-46, ‘I was in prison and you came to visit me’.

Father Tim Norton
Provincial, Divine Word Missionaries
CRA Vice-President