For Good Samaritan Sister Anne Dixon, attending an international prison chaplains’ conference in Cameroon last month proved to be a confronting and heartening experience.
Anne was one of 130 delegates from 59 countries who attended the thirteenth World Congress of the International Commission of Catholic Prison Pastoral Care (ICCPPC) in Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon.
“The conference was an amazing experience,” said Anne. But she also admits it was “confronting” on a number of levels.
This was Anne’s first time in Africa, and although she has travelled to other developing countries and witnessed poverty before – she has been a member of Rosie’s “Friends of the Street” team for the last 18 years – Anne found the vast slums of Yaoundé confronting.
“[It’s] that stark poverty that we don’t have in Australia where there are thousands of people sleeping under cardboard and makeshift tin houses.”
Arriving at the conference venue, the Catholic University of Central Africa, to learn the whole town was without water was a little disconcerting for Anne. By the next day the water problem had been fixed, but such issues are not uncommon for people in countries like Cameroon.
Given Anne’s ministry as a chaplain at Melbourne’s maximum security Port Phillip Prison, you could say she is no stranger to confronting situations. But Anne was shocked by the appalling conditions she encountered at a men’s prison in Yaoundé.
On the day she visited there were about 15 men housed in rooms that were about twice the size of cells for one man in Australia. The conditions were cramped and squalid and the men were under constant armed guard. Anne was told there would normally be about 40 men in each room.
Anne shared this experience with some of the men at Port Phillip Prison. “They were really interested and quite horrified when I compared their cells. That kind of blew them away,” she said.
“It still comes down to the same thing though – loss of freedom. Even though the physical conditions may be better over here, they’re all experiencing that lack of freedom.”
Despite these confronting aspects, Anne also described her Cameroon experience as “heartening”. To gather with other chaplains from many countries, including seven from Australia, was supportive and affirming.
Despite remaining energetic and enthusiastic about their work, Anne said prison chaplains throughout the world often receive poor treatment.
“Chaplains are not really liked; even in Australia [many in the justice system] see us as ‘do-gooders’, ‘bible bashers’. We really do get teased about it,” she explained.
“So it was really heartening being with people that all feel the same way… seeing the good in everybody and believing that Jesus is in them. You can’t kind of tell everyone that; people just laugh at you.”
To those who might criticise her for supporting people who have committed crimes, sometimes heinous, Anne responds: “I don’t condone what they’ve done but I’m not there to judge what they’ve done. I’m there to meet the person who’s in front of me.”
On September 25, Australia’s Catholic bishops will launch their annual Social Justice Sunday statement. Entitled “Building Bridges, Not Walls: Prisons and the Justice System”, the statement asks Catholics to think about conditions in our prisons, who is sentenced to prison and why.
According to the bishops, rates of imprisonment in Australia have risen sharply, although levels of crime have remained steady, and the most disadvantaged in Australia are the most likely to be imprisoned.
Anne believes it’s important that this whole issue is addressed. “Unless people are personally touched by a relative, friend or acquaintance in prison, then prisons are ‘out there’,” she said.
“[Prisons are seen as] that big building with the high fence where the bad people are. We don’t think about the unique human beings on the other side – somebody’s sons and daughters.
“If we do think about them, it’s likely to be in a judgemental way, a scathing way… But this person is a person created by our God, in God’s image, unconditionally loved by our God, forgiven by our God.”
According to Anne, the role of prison chaplains is to be a source of hope for people in prison – “that there are people willing to journey with them, willing to help them to pick up the remnants of their broken lives”.