Jonathan Chambers is an Anglican priest who spent 12 years as a chaplain in Victorian prisons. He reflects on the experience and importance of chaplains in the prison system.
What led you to prison chaplaincy?
After nine years in parish ministry I needed a change. My wife Susanne, also a priest, was happy to continue with a parish so I looked elsewhere. I took a locum position as a prison chaplain at the Melbourne Assessment Prison and found it both challenging and rewarding but I never got used to the sound of heavy metal doors locking behind me. Later I became the senior criminal justice chaplain, with responsibility for the Anglican Church’s ministry in Victorian prisons and support of 14 chaplains.
Tell me some of the challenges of being a prison chaplain.
Working in a secure environment, where you get searched every time you enter the prison, is emotionally wearying, as is living with the constant stereotyping of prisoners that they’re ‘no good’, when your personal experience is of men and women who have had very difficult lives, with needs and dreams like most us.
I felt the injustice and futility of a system where increasingly tougher sentencing laws are introduced with the promise of reducing crime, when we know that prison doesn’t work as a deterrent.
What did you find rewarding?
When men and women first come into custody they are often very fragile as they come to terms with their situation. The rewarding part is the trust they place in you as they share their thoughts, fears and dreams. It’s a real privilege and, because of the lack of people to talk to who they feel they can trust, chaplains are appreciated. Chaplains can’t fix things, but reducing the sense of isolation and helping prisoners feel validated is at the heart of good pastoral care.
From the point of view of the inmates, what do you think is most important about a prison chaplain?
It’s very hard in prison to find someone who is safe to confide in. Chaplains are provided by the various faith communities, primarily to provide for prisoners’ religious needs, because all have the right, under legislation, to practise their religion whilst incarcerated. Chaplains find they minister to many, both religious and those of no faith.
Because chaplains are not part of the prison system, and everything prisoners say to a chaplain is confidential, prisoners feel safe.
What qualities do you think an individual needs to do this kind of work?
Firstly, they need to be a good listener. The work is to meet people where they’re at and not have an agenda of coming to fix something in them or for them. So chaplains need to be emotionally mature and self-aware. Chaplains need to know their limits and when to refer a troubled person for professional help. They need to have a sense of justice, to know when someone is being treated badly, and the emotional intelligence to know how best to respond in a way which won’t get the prisoner into more trouble.
They need to maintain a benevolent disposition in order to work with and get the cooperation of the prison officers, which is essential in gaining access to all areas. Yet at the same time, they need to maintain a professional distance so that prisoners don’t lose their trust in them.
Who cares for the chaplains?
Chaplains never ask prisoners what crime they have committed, but quite regularly prisoners share some horrific life experiences. These can traumatise the chaplain and so taking good care of yourself is very important.
Chaplains debrief with each other on a day-to-day basis. In addition, we all have a supervisor, with whom we meet at least monthly. In addition, most will have a spiritual director and are part of a faith community, in order to attend to their spiritual health. Taking time out to get sufficient exercise and recreation is very important.
Do many prisoners embrace the concept of Christian faith, or want to know more?
Some embrace or rekindle a faith which had been dormant, but most wish to talk about how they can get their lives back on track, so they can maintain connection with their loved ones.
What does your current work involve?
My work now involves providing supervision for professionals, such as chaplains in prisons, hospitals and aged care facilities as well as parish clergy and managers. These people meet with me monthly to debrief, reflect and identify ways that they can be more effective in their work.