“Someone standing beside me” – the role of prison chaplaincy

Craig Madden and Giovanna Danza

Craig Madden and Giovanna Danza

As the number of incarcerated people in Victoria reaches a historic high, a former prisoner has called for greater chaplaincy support in the state’s correctional facilities.

Allison served six months in jail for employment theft. The mother-of-two recounted her story at the 2017 Victorian Prison Chaplaincy Conference, held at the Darebin Arts and Entertainment Centre last week.

Approximately 75 prison chaplains from different faiths attended the conference, now in its third year. It was organised by the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania along with other interfaith partners.

During Allison’s time in prison, there was one person she could always turn to for support ­– Laurel, the prison chaplain.

“I had someone standing beside me the whole way, apart from my family and children,” Allison said.

“I’m always met with compassion from Laurel. The chaplaincy were the only people who did not judge and do not judge.”

A number of chaplains at the conference remarked that religious programs are often given a low priority at correctional centres. This was a concern echoed by Allison, who said many prisoners have to endure long waiting lists before they can sit down with a chaplain.

“We don’t get to access these services enough. Sometimes it can be too late for people,” Allison said.

“You feel like you’re nothing when you’re in there. That’s why we need more availability to have the chaplaincy in there – people who don’t judge you, who want to sit down and just have a cuppa with you.”

When Allison moved back into the community, she quickly realised society would never look at her the same way again. She lost many friends and her criminal record was a permanent stain she had to carry with her.

“You are judged for the rest of your life. People don’t want to know you. Everywhere you go, people say ‘there’s the crim’,” Allison said.

“[Prison] is not a good environment but at least you’re with people. When you go out, you’re on your own again.

“The only thing that got me through, and continues to, is the chaplaincy. It helped not only myself but helped my family stay connected.”

Allison credited Laurel for helping her regain a sense of purpose and self-worth after she left prison.

“I did a period of twelve months on parole and many times I thought I might as well go back,” Allison said.

“I kept going for my family and also because, at the end of the day, I had Laurel. When I came out, she was still there for me.”

chaplaincy conference

There are currently 7155 prisoners in Victoria, the highest in the state’s history. From 2007 to 2017, Victoria’s prison population increased by 70 percent.

Corrections Victoria commissioner Jan Shuard explained that the rise in Victoria’s prison population was due to an increase in prisoners on remand. In the past 10 years, the number of people denied bail has increased by 180 percent.

Historically, less than 20 percent of the prison population have been people on remand, but it has since risen to 32 percent. This figure is higher in women’s prison, with 40 per cent of inmates imprisoned without a conviction.

“We’ve had some significant events in Victoria and tragic events involved people on bail and that makes the decision makers more anxious about who they might release on bail,” Ms Shuard explained.

“No one wants to be the person who potentially releases one of those people [who offended] onto the streets.”

During the conference, the chaplains shared stories with each other and reflected on the impact of trauma and compassion fatigue in their work.

Craig Madden commenced ministry as a Uniting Church prison chaplain seven months ago.

Although he is relatively new to prison chaplaincy, Mr Madden believes his own childhood experiences help him walk in solidarity with people living on the margins.

Mr Madden grew up in an area of East Preston known as ‘Little Chicago’ during the 1960s for its high crime rate. He knew people in his neighbourhood who were in and out of prison.

“Knowledge of hard times and knowledge of crime is not an unknown quantity for me. As a kid, I saw a fair bit of violence growing up,” Mr Madden said.

“So it very much informs what I do now, helping people who may be struggling in terms of poverty. We know that a lot of people who are struggling in that way often, but not all the time, find themselves doing stuff they wouldn’t do if they had availability of education and money and so forth.

“Most of my family never worked, so I know the challenges.”

Mr Madden said Allison’s story affirmed the life-changing role prison chaplains play in offering support to those shunned by the rest of society.

“I think that’s the most important thing for us chaplains – we are not there to judge,” he said.

“People have already been judged or are in the process of being judged. Our job is to walk the journey with them.”


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