A new report in which ex-prisoners and families of people in prison have given an overwhelmingly positive appraisal of the crucial role that Catholic Prison Ministry Victoria plays in their lives, has called for the ministry to be given more resources to meet the demand of a rapidly growing prison population.
Good Samaritan Sister Mary O’Shannassy, Director of Catholic Prison Ministry Victoria, said the report, commissioned by Catholic Social Services Victoria and CatholicCare Archdiocese of Melbourne, was a great encouragement for the team of prison chaplains and volunteers.
“It was indeed very encouraging and very affirming, but also very humbling too,” Mary said.
The report, entitled “I was in prison…”, was prepared by Dr Ruth Webber from Australian Catholic University. Thirty-three people, including chaplains, volunteers, prisoners, ex-prisoners, family members and others were either interviewed or provided written statements about the ministry, resulting in rich descriptions from the participants, including verbatim statements from ex-prisoners and family members.
“Both groups were overwhelmingly positive about Catholic Prison Ministry and the impact it had on their lives,” the report said.
“When asked how this ministry could be improved, ex-prisoners said that the number of chaplains and volunteers should be increased so that they were available when a prisoner needed spiritual and emotional support.”
The study found that prison chaplains have an important role to play in supporting prisoners, ex-prisoners and families, as well as enhancing the general running of prisons by providing a calming influence.
“Without exception, the prisoners and ex-prisoners in the study remarked that the service providers and activities brought light to their days in prison, helped them adjust psychologically to incarceration, and gave them hope of a better life both within and without the walls,” it said.
The report found that the chaplaincy team of both religious and lay people were committed to the tasks required, were non-judgmental and maintained a high degree of confidentiality.
“The only ray of light I had there was that I had the chaplains come in and I rediscovered my faith…; they actually came in and gave me hope. They said I wasn’t a bad person – what I did maybe was a wrong choice in life, but then they would support me and help me find my way,” one ex-prisoner said.
Ruth said she was “incredibly moved” by her time spent observing the work of the Catholic Prison Ministry chaplains and volunteers.
“I was just very impressed by the way they behaved,” she said. “They’re no pushovers, but they treat all people in there as though they believe they can be better people.
“They are acting out every day the fundamental mission of being a Christian – it’s the Gospel in action. And they work with total devotion. They work very long hours and always with complete kindness to prisoners and their families.”
With Victoria’s prison population having doubled in the last two decades, the report recommended that the Catholic Prison Ministry Chaplaincy and Pastoral Care Team be strengthened and extended to include more volunteers and chaplains. It also called for more funding for the team to meet the needs of the increasing prison population.
Further, it recommended that the ministry’s work be promoted so that the Catholic and wider communities become aware of its benefits and the support needed for it to continue. Finally, the report urged adequate financial support for the post-release arm of Catholic Prison Ministry’s work.
Mary welcomed the report and its recommendations and said it gave great encouragement to those involved in the ministry.
“It’s a very great privilege to be able to journey with these people at a very traumatic time in their life and to bring them hope which can lead to transformation,” she said. “It’s very much the Paschal Mystery, the idea that through suffering there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
“We have a great team of chaplains, each of whom brings their own personal gifts and qualities. And it’s my hope that we can learn from this report and continue to bring hope and God’s love into the lives of some of society’s most vulnerable and marginalised people.”