I was visiting a prison with a PF group supporting the chaplaincy with an Alpha course. A man took me to one side because he wanted to thank everyone in PF for what they do. He said that in their week, coming along to this was the only thing that he and his friends looked forward to and that PF and chaplaincy was a place of acceptance and “their only place of refuge”. It made me think about Elijah safe in the cleft of the rock and the verse from Psalm 46, that “God is our refuge and strength”. When as Christians we go in to prison, when we act as Christ would, then we can bring God’s refuge to the people we meet there.
— Peter Holloway, PF CEO
Prison Fellowship’s chaplaincy work has a huge potential for changing lives, but of all the work that our volunteers do, it is perhaps the hardest to explain! Whereas our other three programmes (Sycamore Tree, Angel Tree and Letter Link) all have clear structures and timelines, Chaplaincy Support looks different in every prison, and volunteers fill many different roles.
Stephen Hawkins, PF’s Operations Manager, says, “We see our role as blessing Chaplaincy with the help and volunteers they need, using the gifts our volunteers have to support not just PF’s programmes, but all the vital services that Chaplains offer.”
Prison Chaplaincies are a multi-faith team inside the prison that care for the spiritual and emotional well-being of prisoners, and help with some aspects of prisoner rehabilitation. They also exercise a pastoral ministry to the prison staff. Since the early nineteenth century there have been salaried Chaplains within the prison system, and the Chaplain is one of the three statutorily appointed officers of the prison, the others being the Governor and the Medical Officer.
Each chaplaincy team is made up of a mix of full-time and part-time chaplains, reflecting the faith and denominational makeup of the prison. That means that Anglican, Catholic, Methodist and Free Church chaplains work alongside Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist and Hindu chaplains (among others), with the shared purpose of creating a sacred space where faith is respected and human life is dignified. It is a wonderful thing that this country recognises that prisoners have the right to practice their faith, and that faith can play a positive role in someone’s life!
There is a wealth of research that indicates that involvement in religious practices, such as services and Bible studies, positively impacts how prisoners perceive themselves, and how they interact with their surroundings. PF volunteers in Chaplaincy get to see this impact first hand.
Chaplains have a range of statutory assigned tasks that they must complete every day, including receiving new prisoners, visiting those in the Healthcare and Segregation units, delivering sad news of bereavements to prisoners, and meeting with prisoners due to be released.
PF Volunteers don’t carry out these statutory duties, but they do assist the faith services and small groups that happen in the Chaplaincy, provide administrative support, and can also visit prisoners.
Worship is at the heart of Chaplaincy activities, and services are frequently well attended, but chaplaincies often appreciate support to run these services, with musicians to lead the worship, and preachers to offer a message.
Carol and Adrian Wall are PF volunteers in the north east of England. They have been volunteering in prison for the last few years. Adrian says, “as soon as we started we knew the Lord had called us to it!” They started helping on a Sycamore Tree course, but when the Chaplains saw the effect it had on the men taking it, they were invited back to lead a Bible study.
“We work to build a relationship between Prison Fellowship and the Chaplaincy, so they know who we are and where we come from. And there has been such a good response — lads dragging others along with them when they come. One guy was on his way to the gym when his friend convinced him to come! Of course, the chocolate biscuits and tea help!”
Prisoners often have limited opportunities to spend time outside their cells in meaningful activities, so the services that Chaplaincy offer can be a lifeline. “People think prisons are scary, but if the Lord is leading you there, you don’t feel threatened,” Adrian affirms.