There is a great need for guidance for female prisoners. As a chaplain, my role is to answer their questions, be they spiritual, religious or other. For example, prisoners ask me for the Ramadan calendar, for books on religion, for information on fasting. Some have specific questions; for others, it is up to me to initiate the conversation by asking them questions, like what they know about religion, for example. From there, I can identify a point and make it a theme around which I build the discussion. For women who worship regularly, I suggest a theme that I choose ahead of time.
Women in prison are often devastated and in search of meaning. My main goal is to restore their self-image. I always try to combine personal development with religion by working on themes like self-confidence and self-esteem, or even emotional management. Unfortunately, women are too often imprisoned in their own minds, which makes it difficult for them to deal with emotions. So, I try to calm them down and encourage open-mindedness so that they can deal with their feelings better.
One day, a girl came to see me in major distress. She was crying a lot, repeating Quranic verses over and over again and mourning the loss of her baby. She was overwhelmed. I thought that, in addition to spiritual help, she needed tools to deal with the thoughts that were consuming her. She was trapped in her guilt and needed to escape this hellish cycle. I asked her to repeat sentences like: “My baby is in heaven, I am a good mother, God will give me another child…” What was essential in this situation, in my opinion, was that she regain her self-confidence before connecting to religion again.
I still think that everyone working in the prison environment should be better trained in law and religion. By this I mean prison probation officers, chaplains and of course wardens. It is important to be more aware of these issues in order to better respond to the needs of women prisoners.
I don’t think that there is a particular stigma attached to religious people. Of course, from time to time, I hear their complaints about certain female guards. I have also expressed my concern to the administration regarding hostility shown by the staff. But I have never witnessed an incident. It is more of a feeling. Neutrality is my duty.