DB. Whether they minister in a hospital, in prison, or in the armed forces, the role of chaplains is to allow those who are not free to go where they please to practice their faith. In prison, the precise role of chaplains varies depending on their official status and the economic environment where they are. The poorer the context, the greater the expectation that chaplains will provide material help. For instance, in some African countries, food is already a challenge for prison officers, let alone inmates. On the other hand, in countries where chaplains are on the prison staff, they may sit on official committees and manage several teams: in addition to chaplaincy services themselves, these may include teams of volunteers involved in areas well beyond traditional religious services such as bereavement counselling, literacy, and restorative justice.
Nevertheless, spiritual care remains chaplains’ ‘core business’. This takes different forms in different faiths. For Muslims, corporate prayer is usually the most important aspect. In the Jewish faith, chaplains will mainly be concerned with ensuring inmates have kosher food that complies with their religious observance. For Christians, in addition to religious services, one-to-one counselling plays a major role.
Whatever the faith in question, religious services function as something of a truce in prison life. Participants forget the bars and turn their minds to other things. Inmates who would not normally associate meet together, united by shared beliefs.
In some prisons, guards stay outside services; in others, they may attend in a professional capacity; sometimes they may even participate. One has to be realistic: religious services in prison can also be an opportunity for trafficking, fights, or worse. In 1990, a 25-day riot in Strangeways prison in the UK began at a chapel service. But in general, such times, and the religious beliefs they represent, are respected by everyone.
To meet individual inmates, chaplains often have access to every area of a prison, including the cells, where they can talk to prisoners unaccompanied. On the face of it, many such conversations appear mundane: chaplains might chat about the weather and the news over coffee.
Inmates find themselves face-to-face with an “other”: someone who is not a fellow inmate, social worker, guard, or magistrate; this “other” from outside the system allows them to see themselves a little more clearly.
Over time, this type of interaction creates a trusting environment, and often leads to more meaningful discussions. At that point, chaplains can help inmates draw closer to a more transcendent “Other”. Chaplains have been described as “little hope-bearers”, and I think that’s a very good summary of our role.