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The chaplain’s role is essentially two-fold: (a) to offer spiritual support within the prison and (b) to have a ‘listening heart’.

A listening heart also means an open heart as they walk alongside people of their own faith, people of other faiths and people of no faith.

So the chaplain is there for everyone – and the people in prison are free to express their needs to any chaplain. Eventually the Catholic people will emerge seeking the Catholic chaplain to ask about Mass, the sacraments etc. They may not have been to Mass for 30 years but they ask if Mass is available. I think they look back to times of goodness and peace before their world turned upside down and they want to be at Mass again – all of these services and needs are made available for them.

So the chaplain walks into the prison each day unarmed as it were, no bibles, prayer-books or rosaries − no barrow to push − showing friendship and interest to all. Sooner or later, when you are seen as non-threatening, non-judging, non-preaching, people begin to express their needs. Very often they want to share the burden of their crime – it weighs heavily – and they are very aware that while they’re inside, there is a victim outside and they would like to set things right. I quote from NZ Catholic Bishops Conference: Revenge or Reconciliation 2009: Many New Zealanders have found opportunities for repentance and forgiveness through restorative justice processes. These require offenders to face up to the consequences of their offending, and give a chance for victims to express their hurt. This can be a turning point for both parties.

One important tenet for prison chaplains is that they never enquire of anyone the reason for their being here or the nature of their crime but one can be absolutely certain that sooner or later you will be told – chaplains hear more confessions than any priest or minister.

I became a prison chaplain unintentionally. After 30 or more years in the classroom, five years of pastoral work in a parish and five years as chaplain at our rest home in Whanganui, I came to Wellington in 1994 for a rest, I think, a rest year maybe. After a few weeks of enjoying being back in Wellington and ‘taking it easy’, Br Kieran Garvey who was at that time chaplain at Mt Crawford prison and also senior Catholic chaplain, overseeing the appointments of catholic chaplains, phoned to ask if I’d like to spend a couple of afternoons a week at Rimutaka prison where Sr Maureen Gerarty (Presentation Sister) was chaplain and very overworked. She needed help. So I went to Rimutaka (with some trepidation, I have to say) but Maureen was a wonderful person to introduce me to chaplaincy ways. ‘Just walk in among the lads,’ she’d say, ‘and listen’.

A few months later Br Kieran phoned again and wondered if I’d also like to help out at Arohata women’s prison for a couple of mornings or afternoons a week as Sr Carmel (Home of Compassion Sister) would welcome someone there. This I did. Soon after that Carmel moved to Wairoa, her replacement Sister became ill and was unable to fill the position so I was left ‘holding the baby’, as it were, for the next 14 years at Arohata.

Later on in the year Br Kieran phoned again to say he was going home to Ireland for a few months leave and if I had a spare afternoon I might like to go up to Crawford to ‘walk among the lads’ and maybe take a Communion service for ‘the lads’ on a Sunday morning?

By this time I had worked out that to ‘walk among the lads’ was the Irish way of saying ‘move around with a listening heart’. As mentioned, Maureen Gerarty, who was Irish, too, used it frequently. And ‘the lads’, of course, were fairly rough, tough, burly men of all ages and stages!

So before 1994 (my rest year) had ended, I had a foot, as it were, in the three Wellington prisons!

And of the three prisons, Mt Crawford, (now called Wellington Prison) would have to be my favourite. (It does seem strange to have a favourite prison.) Although I spent most of my time at Arohata, it was Wellington that I had a soft spot for. It is situated on such a prime spot in the capital city, surrounded by beauty and lovely harbour views, none of which were visible to those inside the citadel with the towering concrete walls topped with huge wire coils. Inside, there was concrete, too. It was cold and grey, cramped and dusty, heavy clanging doors, no sunshine could ever penetrate this prison. Rimutaka and Arohata could at least see the sunshine and hills and some of the wings had some grass in the exercise yards but not Crawford, not a blade of grass within those high walls.

Yet there was always a good spirit there. I think in such harsh living conditions (not from authority but just the structure of the building) the men knew it was no use being harsher with one another and adding to the misery, they were more or less forced to be pleasant. There was always time for a smile and a laugh.

I was always glad to get the call from Kieran that he’d be away for a while – would I like to come up and see the lads – bring Communion on Sunday?

Training for prison chaplaincy mainly took place ‘on the floor’. I was fortunate to learn from Maureen Gerarty and Pam Sims (the Salvation Army chaplain at Arohata), and Carmel, too, for the short time I was with her at Arohata – her interest in and kindness to everyone, was outstanding. They were wonderful chaplains, understanding, compassionate and very firm – and one certainly needed to be firm because there would sometimes be a con man or woman in the mix, thinking that the chaplains might be a soft touch, especially a new chaplain.

There were also in-service training days every month for the Catholic chaplains and sometimes weekend training courses for all chaplains at the Corrections Dept college at Rimutaka.

My experience has been that most of the people in prison are not unlike us – just ordinary folks.

We see every day in the media criminals who have committed heinous crimes which make one wonder how human beings could be like that but behind the face of the worst offender lies a history of terrible neglect, poverty, abuse and lovelessness. One wonders how to find the face of Christ there but we are asked to. I quote from Killian de Lacy, Senior Catholic Prison Chaplain, ‘ We need to discover the face of Christ in every prisoner. Some of us would like to think we are the face of Christ to them, but it actually works the other way’ … and in the same booklet, the statement of the NZ Catholic prison chaplains ‘We don’t take Christ to the prisons, he is already there’.

However, these high profile prisoners whose faces and stories are in the media everyday, are in the minority in the prisons.

The vast majority of people in prison, as mentioned, are not unlike us – the difference being we have been blessed with a good home life, love, friendship, support and education. This has not been their lot, rather dysfunctional family, little education, no support or encouragement, alcohol and drugs aplenty, abuse of all sorts … given the same circumstances, the chaplain knows that they would be in prison, too. ‘There but for the grace of God, go I.’

In saying that this type of background is the history of most prisoners, it is not always so. During my time at Arohata I met two past pupils and neither was from a dysfunctional family. A few years would have separated their sentences, but the similarity of their circumstances was striking. Generally, both on leaving school had begun to socialise with groups dabbling in drugs. Gradually the drug-taking increased until they became addicted, committed crime and ended up at Arohata. Both were surprised but seemed happy to meet their former teacher again. They were not embarrassed and I was not shocked. We had a bond – a past – and good memories. Now the present had to be faced as they tried to put their lives together again in the drug and alcohol unit at Arohata.

Prison chaplains have to turn their hand to everything. During my days at Arohata, in addition to seeing to spiritual needs, I taught literacy and numeracy, helped with art and craft activities, accompanied women to the parole board, minded babies, played card games, provided accommodation for a family visiting their daughter in prison, shared my home with an ex-prisoner on home detention and sometimes met prisoners in the early morning (usual release time) to take them to bus, train or airport for the return home. I found this a very moving time as I waited at the prison gates and on the stroke of 7 am, the prison door would open to release a woman struggling with a suitcase, carton and bag.

The heavy wooden door would clang closed as if to say ‘That’s it, off you go’. It all seemed so clinical – no transport provided. And then as I put them on to the bus or train, I wondered what awaited them at the other end? Would someone meet them – a family member or friend? Would they walk down the street to home on their own? Would they be able to reintegrate? Would there be a welcome home party?

I quote again from the Caritas booklet ‘Many former prisoners trying to turn their lives around find the barriers to reintegration are huge. Few prisoners find a ‘fatted calf” on their arrival back into society, as was the case for the son in the parable of the Forgiving Father (Lk 15:11ff). We are called to work to help former prisoners find ways to restart their lives.’

I think prison chaplains must be the most trusted people in the country. When they hand in their tag each morning they receive a bunch of keys which take them to any part of the prison at any time, the only stipulation being if they are visiting a secure unit a prison officer would have to accompany them.

I have never felt unsafe in a prison. There are always officers around, keeping an eye on everything, sensing where there might be trouble and stopping it before it begins – usually.

I always found something endearing about the women at Arohata and that may sound strange, too, but there was a great truth about them – they knew where they stood, they owned what they’d done, they weren’t seeking to be anything else but themselves.

In the world we have to keep up, like to be well thought of, like to be considered and have something worthwhile to do. We’re part of a society of consumerism and materialism and other ‘isms’ but in the prison there’s a great humility and acceptance of where and who they are. And all the essential qualities that the church asks for confession and forgiveness, such as real sorrow, a purpose of amendment and atonement that we might have to work at, they’re there in abundance in the prison, naturally. I often looked at the women at Arohata and thought ‘these women are more real and more authentic than I am’.

One of their great interests was in my lifestyle. Did I have a husband? No – a partner? No – any kids? No. Have you ever had? No. They’d look at me as if I was from another planet. Sadly, for most of them they’d have had a number of relationships, some abusive and there were always children at home. Being in a relationship was important to them, no matter what the outcome. I could never pick the right time and place to explain to them that I was in a relationship with Christ, in faith.

The gospels are about seeking out lost sheep and celebrating the return of the prodigal son. Jesus spent time with prostitutes and sinners. He spent his last night as a remand prisoner (waiting to be sentenced) and his last act was to forgive a fellow condemned criminal.

St Hildegard of Bingen often wrote about Christ as ‘greenness and new life’.

Recently, while reading the August issue of the Far Eastmagazine, I noticed in the editorial Fr Gary Walker says ‘Kindness has always helped people to recall their humanity, to remember who they were before awful events traumatised them’.

Christ incarnate, through the kindness of his fellow prisoners, returned him to his humanity – and again we recall the prison chaplains’ statement, ‘We don’t take Christ to the prisons, he is already there’.

To conclude, I return again to Hildegard’s words that Christ incarnate not only brings lush greenness to shrivelled and wilted people – but also to institutions!

Surely not. Could grim old Mt Crawford come to life with lush greenness? While reflecting on Hildegard’s words…and my own experiences as a prison chaplain, these words came to mind:

Mt Crawford Prison, collect the grill key

Clanging of gates, no sun to see,

Concrete and shabbiness, wind whistling round

Coldness and grayness, can God be found……

          in this institution

          Way up on the hill?

          Surrounded by pine trees

          No flowers on the sill?

Iron on the windows, old wooden floors

I struggle to open the huge, heavy doors…

into Wing One, men everywhere

Coming and going, can God be here.

            In this shabby old room…

           Surrounded by cells?

           Lunch being served

           Cabbage soup smells

Men of all ages queuing for food

Faces denoting various moods

Where have they come from? Where have they been?

In this motley crown can God be seen…

            In these anxious expressions,

            Eyes full of fear, worried and saddened,

            Can God be here?

A welcome awaits me, a handshake, a kiss,

A bowl of soup and a bun for you, Miss.

Sit down with Shane, discuss the All Blacks

Jake says, “Will you send my family a Fax?

Tom wants a prayer for a special intention

Then to Nick’s cell to see his invention.

Rob wants a Bible – Tony’s fed up

Luke wants my thoughts on the Soccer World Cup.

Chatting together, laughter and jokes

Prisoners, yes, just ordinary folks.

        Lock-up time soon, so I move along

        Leaving Richard composing another new song

        Jack calls ‘Before you go come to my cell’….

        A prayer for his family that all will be well….

        While he is away….and his own special need?

        If you please, Sister, a prayer book to read.

Out into sunlight, freshness of air

In this cold, concrete prison, yes God is there….

In the daily encounters, the sadness and shame

The grief for wrong-doing, the absence, the pain.

Christ, greenness incarnate brings lushness of life

Where there’s drooping and wilting and boredom and strife.

        Yes, God can be found in this cold, concrete place,

        I reach out and touch him, I walk in his grace.

                                                           Sr Josepha O’Connor, RSJ