I was in prison and you came to visit me. Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me. (Matthew, 25, 36-40)
On Sunday 6 November, Pope Francis held a special mass for 1000 prisoners in St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican.
His message was one of hope and mercy for the prisoners, who came from 12 different countries.
During his homily, Pope Francis urged authorities to strive for better prison conditions, and called for the abolishment of the death penalty.
He also spoke about his own personal reflections during his many prison visits around the world.
‘I ask myself, “Why them and not me?” Everyone has the possibility to make mistakes, everyone.’
It was the first time so many prisoners were received at the Vatican.
The St Vincent de Paul Society and Prison ministry
The St Vincent de Paul Society has long been involved with assisting prisoners—from those on remand to those re-entering society once they have served their time. Families of those behind bars are also given support.
Ahead of the Alexander Maconochie Centre (AMC) opening in the ACT in 2008, it was the then Canberra-Goulburn Catholic Bishop Pat Power who recommended the Society have a presence inside the Territory’s first prison.
Roger* was studying to become a deacon when he got the call.
‘It was just a gentle suggestion. A couple of us acted on it. And so, for between 15 and 18 months, we prepared for the opening of the jail.
‘It was really successful because on the day the prison doors opened, we had an established group of people who wanted to work in the prison.’
They included lawyers, people with backgrounds in meditation and spirituality, and a Catholic chaplain.
Preparations involved networking with others from the Society – in particular those who were familiar with Correctional Centres in Junee and Goulburn, and at the former Belconnen Remand Centre.
A Canberra woman began liaising with Vinnies stores across the Archdiocese, so that those on remand could appear before magistrates wearing suitable clothing.
Eight years later, she is still sourcing the clothing, which is also needed by prisoners re-entering society.
To become involved with prison work, a police background check is mandatory.
Training includes being made aware of situational incidents that might arise.
A need to establish boundaries, to avoid friendships becoming problematic, is also essential.
In one instance, a mother of a prisoner who was brought to the AMC was allegedly caught smuggling prohibited material into the jail.
‘It is in situations like these, where you feel compromised,’ says Roger.
Noel is one of two Catholic members of the prison chaplaincy team at AMC.
He was approached by the then Administrator of the Archdiocese, Monsignor John Woods, during the prison’s implementation phase.
His ministry includes representing the St Vincent de Paul Society at the prison.
As well as a Bachelor of Religious Studies (Theology) and a Masters in Theology (Spiritual and Pastoral Care), Noel has completed courses in mental health and addictions case management.
As a volunteer, he may spend between a day and a day-and-a-half each week at the prison, and says active listening skills, patience, and an ecumenical approach help build rapport with inmates.
‘Many have experienced a dysfunctional upbringing,’ he says.
‘Some of them are well educated. One thing they can all do is pick insincerity very quickly.
‘So you have to talk to them from the heart. You also need to use reason. But you can’t talk to them from the top of your head.’
An awareness of criminogenic needs—traits of an individual that relate to their likelihood of reoffending—is also important.
Noel says his studies in mental health and addictions case management have been particularly useful.
‘Knowing a little about how the brain works and what triggers behaviour has been a big help for me, in terms of understanding why people become addicted to something.
‘You can get some insight into the problems of addiction, whether that be gambling, drugs, or pornography.’
Above all else, Noel says it is essential to be non-judgemental, open minded and passionate about the work.
‘You can’t go into a prison with a preconception about what you can do for people.
‘You are in there as a chaplain, doing God’s work. So you need to be selfless.
‘You can’t afford to think you are going to be in charge, and that you are going to change people.
‘Or that you are some sort of hero going in. That doesn’t work.’
Through conducting Christian meditation at the jail, Noel says it is possible for prisoners to experience peace, joy and healing.
‘Many are distressed. Some have a very short attention span. The reason why they are so unfocused is often because of their anxiety and other mental health problems, along with feelings of guilt.’
Celebrating Mass is not a straight forward event. For security reasons, some groups of prisoners are not permitted to mix, making it necessary to hold services in alternating locations. Conflicting groups include rival gang members and hardened criminals who might harm someone, if given the opportunity.
‘One of the challenges is organising things to allow for everyone who wants to go to a Mass, to get to a Mass,’ Noel adds.
‘We do rely on prison officers to help with this.’
The Society and prison advocacy
The saint behind the Society, St Vincent de Paul, pledged his life to people who were sick, insane, orphaned, elderly, starving or abandoned, as well as to beggars, prisoners and slaves.
In keeping with the Vincentian spirit, prison visitations have formed part of the Society’s work for decades.
A 1988 Commission of Review into Corrective Services in Queensland called for better ways of putting prisoners in touch with the Society’s members.
One of the concerns read: ‘Someone would walk around the yards shouting: ‘Does anyone want to see the St Vincent de Paul?’ That was how they would make new contacts. It wasn’t very effective. A lot of people don’t hear the call or understand what it means and in Brisbane Prison at least, there is no way of knowing if a call around all the yards was ever made.’
In 2015, more people were behind bars in Australia than ever before, the Australian Bureau of Statistics found. According to the Productivity Commission, each Australian prisoner costs an average of $292 per day—almost double Australia’s average daily earnings of $160.
At an overall cost to tax payers of $2.6 billion per annum, some advocates argue such money could be better spent on preventing people from being jailed.
Contemporary prison advocacy work the St Vincent de Paul Society supports includes a ground-breaking initiative with the not-for-profit organisation, the Maranguka Justice Reinvestment project. Based in the north-west NSW town of Bourke, the project focusses on long-term solutions to crime, including early intervention, criminal prevention and diversionary programs.
Roger says working with other organisations, both inside and outside of the jail, assists the Society with obtaining better access to people who need non-partisan support. Such organisations include Kairos Prison Ministry, an interdenominational Christian ministry; Prisoners Aid, a secular organisation; and Directions ACT, a health services provider.
While there are challenges, Noel says it is important to be mindful of the frailty of the human condition.
‘Original sin comes to mind’, he says.
‘And human weakness. How easily we can all make mistakes. In a sense, the work I do has given me a deeper appreciation of the spiritual support I get from my belief system as a practicing Catholic.’
*Surnames withheld by request
Belinda Cranston is media advisor at the St Vincent de Paul Society.