I was asked if I would consider being Quaker Chaplain (QPC) at our local D Category (low security) all male prison. I had recently embarked on consultancy rather than full time work and had some time on my hands. I was told by a previous QPC on the nominations committee that they thought I would be good at it. So full of trepidation, I said yes, not knowing whether I would be able to do the work or not.
The prison prepares offenders, some who have spent more than 30 years inside, for the outside world; and the population included ex-murderers, arsonists, fraudsters, drug dealers and sex offenders. After an initial interview with the very experienced Anglican Coordinating Chaplain, in which we both realised that we could work with each other, I waited for the high security CTC clearance to be completed. This took five months and in the meantime I wasn’t allowed into the prison. Quakers got me started with some really excellent residential training at Woodbrooke and eventually I received notice that I was cleared to start at the prison. Later I undertook the Prison Service’s own chaplaincy training which involved a residential weekend and being awarded a certificate. I would sum up the difference in the two forms of training I received as follows: Quakers taught that we should never forget that prisoners are people and the prison service taught that we should never forget that they are criminals.
My first day in prison will always stay with me. I had learned that the Co-ordinating Chaplain I had met was off on long term sick leave and another Methodist Chaplain had stepped in to fill the post on a temporary basis. I reported to him and he told me there was only one registered Quaker prisoner and that he was waiting in Education, keen to meet me. I felt like a fraud, I didn’t know what I was meant to do apart from listen and all I could offer was my own faith.
The man I met said he was very interested to hear more about Quaker faith, but just at the moment he had a very pressing problem. He was due to go for an interview at a University tomorrow and he needed to sort out his portfolio of work which was in a mess. This was quite extraordinary because I had spent 40 years in communications, 20 as Creative Director of various companies and I had seen more portfolios than I had had hot dinners. So of course I could help him with his portfolio. He was later offered a place at the University but had it withdrawn by the chancellor when he discovered the man’s history. But there is a happy ending because, following his release, he not only got onto a BA course at another University but he is also a very active member of his Quaker Meeting. After this initial sign, I always felt that I was meant to be working in prison.
Chaplaincy is frustrating work. Although you are part of the chaplaincy team, you are very much on your own. You meet prisoners who you know in your heart will always have difficulties trying to live in society. One man, who had a huge amount of inner anger, came to our weekly meeting in prison and even came out with me to my local meeting. On release I heard that within a week he had got drunk, got into a fight and was now back in Wandsworth prison.
My four or five regulars told me that they loved our gathered silence. One said it was like time off his sentence because he didn’t feel he was inside when he was in meeting. I took each man as I found him, encouraging them to be regular in their attendance at the meeting inside so that, once they became eligible for a ROTL (i.e. judged that they were safe to go out of prison for a defined time), I would take them to my local meeting on a Sunday. Here, Quakers couldn’t have been more supportive. They befriended them and welcomed them into their homes for shared lunches. I always took along enough familiar food for them too (they hadn’t all encountered nut roast before!)
Another part of my job was contacting Quaker meetings all over the UK when a prisoner was coming up to release and knew where he was going to be re-settled. Again, Quakers everywhere that I contacted (usually Clerks or Elders of the meeting) couldn’t have been more supportive and I never had a negative encounter when asking if a meeting could take in one of my men. In just over two and half years I believe I really helped five offenders.
I had many deep spiritual experiences in prison and chaplaincy has really deepened my own faith. I certainly never felt alone inside.
For more information about Quaker prison chaplains, click here.