It wasn’t part of the retirement plan! To spend every other Tuesday afternoon and the last Wednesday evening of each month in a prison! But what a joy, a privilege, a challenge and a frustration it is…In the past seven years I have been a Quaker Prison Chaplain (QPC) in two very different prisons, one in a local jail of over 500, the other holding only ‘lifers’ serving long sentences for the more extreme crimes with fewer than 200.
‘Quaker’ and ‘Chaplain’ are something of a contradiction in terms, however, the title accords with the prison system’s requirement for labels.
I discovered there are as many ways of being a QPC as there are QPCs. Much depends on the acceptance by both prison and chaplaincy and also what skills a QPC has to offer. I have been fortunate that I have been encouraged to work in a variety of ways. I have met individuals on a 1:1 basis, both short and long term, to offer emotional support where my previous experience as a practising counsellor has proved so helpful. We discuss many things, mainly spiritually based, spend a while in silence and/or a led meditation, share coffee and biscuits and finish with a chat. On the Wednesday evening there is a Meeting for Worship in the chapel and currently 5 regular Friends join me - how grateful I am for their consistent support.
What is it about? It means different things to different people at different times, depending what is going on in their lives. Time-out is a factor from the hurly burly of the wings, such noisy places with the constant clanging of gates and doors, keys jangling, voices raised… Porridge got it right! For some it is a time to be able to share deep and meaningful thoughts and experiences in a safe environment where no judgments are made and where each is listened to with courtesy and respect. For others it is a time to be challenged in matters of the spirit, but also to have some fun and laughter; to taste the fresh air of the world outside one inevitably brings in.
I am often moved and impressed by the profound insights expressed: coming together is a two way process. I believe absolutely that there is that ‘of God’ or, for me, that which is ‘good’ in all people (even if is it is a bit hard to find sometimes!) For me no child is born evil and each is precious and unique. There are no excuses for the committing of these crimes but there are often underlying reasons… we all ‘get it wrong’ sometimes and there but for the grace of… I do not judge but value and respect the individuality of each person. I believe it is my role to nurture and, dare I say it, to love the men with whom I meet whilst being sensitive to dependency issues. Not worthy, not about ‘doing’, but it is about sharing in a difficult and challenging journey and that is where the joy lies – and the – privilege!
Once accepted I have always been made very welcome by the group and feel privileged to meet with great honesty, humour and kindness. I admit I am involved with each individual, practically, spiritually and emotionally and I make no apologies for that, as the boundaries are kept well in place. It is a big commitment, of course, but I am very glad, when asked, that I said yes.
Here are the thoughts of some inmates about the QPC meetings:
- God is where peace and love is;
- Brings reality into an unreal world;
- Meeting provides a sanctuary, I welcome the peace;
- Genuine, friendly meeting in a place surrounded by falsehoods;
- A route to relaxation and trust, where you can be yourself;
- A contemplative base for confidential discussion;
- Good to be where no-one is pushing an agenda, it retains your humanity;
- Meetings with QPCs have meant the world to me. I would have been lost without them.
For more information about Quaker prison chaplains, click here.