My work as part of a Chaplaincy team began in 1995 when I joined an all male team in a Cat C. training prison in Lancashire. The senior chaplain, an Anglican, advised me to “find your own ministry, Maureen”, which I found quite daunting. Wearing a badge with my name and QUAKER CHAPLAIN was an encouragement for men to ask about Quakers and their beliefs. Most discussions took place in the workshops – the weaving shed, the sewing rooms, the woodwork or industrial cleaning areas.
Usually, the men who were ready to talk had a problem and wanted help. They may have had a “Dear John” letter from a partner wanting to end a relationship, worries about children or aged parents. Those whose families supported and helped them were the lucky ones. There was little I could do in practical terms except to listen and give my time. In serious cases, like bereavement, I could arrange for the man to come to the chapel for an hour, so that we could have peace and quiet and refreshment – and sometimes pray together.
As I became more confident, I started a weekly Meeting for Worship in the chapel, leading from a request made by a man who had moved from another prison and was registered as a Quaker. The group grew to 12 to 15 each week. We began with a reading from “Quaker Faith and Practice”, chosen by one of the group and then about forty minutes of silence. Afterwards we had coffee and biscuits and talked, gradually building up a support group, which the men really valued.
With other members of the team, I joined in evening activities too. With the Catholic chaplain we arranged “Christian Meditation” on one evening a month. We also had a discussion group with a pre-arranged subject, one evening a week. We wanted to encourage the men to listen to each other and to respect other opinions. The men didn’t swear in front of women, so that was different from much of the ‘discussion’ on the wings.
By now, I was working at the prison two or three days a week and taking on many of the ‘generic duties’ of pastoral care, which was not directly linked to any religious group. This meant that I grew to know a small group of vulnerable men much better e.g. those that were on suicide watch. I also sat on three committees with prison officers and other staff - the Anti-Bullying Committee, Suicide Awareness and Lifer Care. Prisoners who worked as Listeners, trained by the Samaritans, made a valuable contribution to the Suicide Awareness Committee and its discussions.
In the prison at that time, there was very little integration of men who were convicted of rape and other sexual offences, including those with children, who were called Vulnerable Prisoners (VPs) – liable to be harmed by other prisoners. The prison was in two halves, which meant that all courses, services etc were doubled up. I had two Meetings for Worship each week. The only group that met together were the Lifers.
At this time, I began to run Level 1 AVP workshops. The chaplaincy team thought it would be helpful for the men in our prison. The workshops were across a three day period and the men had to volunteer to participate. The exercises were experiential and they developed affirmation, community building, co-operation and creative conflict resolution skills.
The workshops were very popular with the men and soon we were able to introduce Level 2 workshops where VPs and other prisoners worked together. Later we trained inmate facilitators and they were very successful, especially the Lifers, who had much experience of avoiding or resolving conflicts. We trained about 200 men before the workshops were discontinued.
During my ten years at the prison, I learned how much we all had in common, the prisoners, the staff and the chaplains. Most people read little about what actually happens in our prisons, except the rather distorted and old fashioned views of the national press. But I have had many deep and meaningful conversations with prisoners and found kindness and wisdom too. I am grateful for the opportunity I had to work with them.
To read more about Quaker prison chaplains, click here.