A friend to the friendless
In the July/August 2011 issue of New Humanist, Richard Smyth assessed the role of prison chaplains. Here David Silver, who is serving a life sentence in HMP Gartree, offers his view
This is a response to Richard Smyth's article on the role of prison chaplains, "Captive audience", which appeared in the July/August 2011 issue of New Humanist.
Prison can be a lonely and hostile place. I should know. I’ve been incarcerated for the last five-and-a-half years. I mention that as a statement of fact rather than a plea for sympathy. I committed a serious crime. I fully deserved to go to prison. The only detail that is relevant and important here is that not a single day has passed when I have not regretted the wrong I did.
Prisoners, by definition, are social outcasts. The courts condemn us, society rejects us and the media vilifies us. Once inside things can quickly go from bad to worse. Despite tabloid claims to the contrary, prison is not an easy place to live. The day-to-day reality of incarceration can be stressful and frightening.
Prison officers are tasked with a duty of care towards us but not necessarily a duty of compassion. They are generally not interested in our day-to-day troubles and woes. In such circumstances we have few places to turn. Hence the often vital need for the role of a chaplain. The prison chaplain becomes a friend to the friendless, a mediator to the aggrieved and a champion for the underdog. The chaplain will always listen and do whatever is within their power to help a distressed prisoner. What the prison chaplain doesn’t do is take the opportunity to proselytise his or her faith.
Richard Smyth is quite right when he points out that the conflation of religion with chaplaincy is somewhat erroneous. I assure you, inside, prison chaplains are respected by the religious and non-religious alike. Chaplains may indeed choose their vocation from a sense of commitment to their respective faiths but they are not trying to sell prisoners salvation. Instead they simply offer us what we all sometimes need – compassion and empathy.
Which, of course, begs the question, why the need for religious chaplains as opposed to, say, prison counsellors?
With incarceration comes not only a loss of liberty but also an almost complete annihilation of identity. In prison you are no longer the husband, father, son, brother or uncle you once were, at least not in your former capacity. You are perhaps no longer able to dress the same way you once did; almost certainly no longer entitled to enjoy the same social activities you once participated in.
However, religion, and by implication prison chaplains, can be one of the few anchors to not only a prisoner’s cultural identity but also their very sense of self. The Christian prisoner is more than just a prisoner – he is a Christian. The Muslim prisoner is more than just a prisoner – he is a Muslim. A prisoner of faith can salvage a connection to his former life via the chaplaincy department. For those of faith, this must be very reassuring.
As for the question of humanist chaplains, that would depend solely on the demand for the position. For example, aside from the Christian and Muslim chaplains here in HMP Gartree, the rest of the chaplaincy staff are employed only on an ad hoc basis. In other words, a prisoner could request to see a humanist chaplain and he would undoubtedly be permitted to do so, but as for employing a humanist chaplain on a more regular basis, that would depend on the amount of professed humanists in the prison.
And isn't there just something wonderfully Darwinian about that?