By Eric Martin
Prison Chaplains support hundreds of people in prisons and detention centres across the State, ranging from young to old, and including all types of inmates.
Highly educated with five qualifications and a man with a no-nonsense attitude, Joe O’Brien never expected to be spending the last nine years of his life behind bars in Hakea Prison, Perth’s maximum security jail – especially at the direct request of a bishop.
Yet a life of faith and obedience led Mr O’Brien through the gates of Hakea and into a twilight world where real, everyday life is suspended, as the inmates serve their time for crimes committed or await the trial that could see them either incarcerated or set free.
“When Bishop Don first asked me about taking on the Prison Ministry I said ‘You’ve got to be joking,” Mr O’Brien said. “Yet here I am, nine years later and still loving what I do.”
Joe O’Brien is the Co-ordinator for Prison Ministry at the Archdiocese of Perth and spoke to The Record about both the need for support from lay people and religious, and the impact that such an act of mercy can have for both prisoner and Chaplain.
“Prison ministry is really one of those things that is about living your faith: the idea is that if you live your faith well, then people see that faith in action.
“Because a lot of people, you can say what you like, you can give them things to read but it makes little or no difference – it’s about what you do.
“They see you and they realise that you mean what you say – they appreciate it and go: ‘Well, okay!’.”
Mr O’Brien went on to share that Prison Chaplaincy is all about living “a real faith”, it is about being willing to put your faith on the line (because people are going to give you a hard time about it), and being concrete in your faith.
“To work in this sort of environment, you really have to have a concrete faith. “In my experience, I see that my faith is always getting challenged, even simply by some of the stories that I hear. However, even hearing those stories, just listening and being there, I’ve had guys tell me years later that those moments really changed their life.
“And that’s incredibly faith building overall, but at the time, it was a real challenge for me.”
Mr O’Brien shared that a recent challenge faced by the chaplains is in maintaining regular Church services within the prisons.
“ … achieve more than they would dare to dream, there arises an opportunity to face their own woundedness.”
“When you’re short of staff you just can’t run a service, it’s as simple as that.” He shared that this is especially disappointing given the fact that the services have otherwise been a genuine source of outreach to the prison population as, according to Mr O’Brien. “We’ve been getting some fantastic numbers at church as well, which is great”.
Positive steps are already being taken to address this issue with the new appointment of two indigenous chaplains, the first indigenous chaplains in WA, who will be assisting Mr O’Brien in meeting the spiritual needs of the Aboriginal prison population, a group which is significantly over-represented in terms of numbers of individuals incarcerated.
As well as being someone who can listen, chaplains also provide a source of stability to prisoners, who often came from difficult backgrounds, Mr O’Brien added: “prisoners live in a real world that is often filled with a great deal of dysfunctionality”.
“They’re looking for someone who’s solid, because many of them have nothing like that,” he explained.
The work of a Prison Chaplain includes some of the following;
To affirm people in a Christ-like manner and provide them an opportunity to grow in self-knowledge and expand their spiritual awareness.
To extend this unconditional acceptance of them so that there is an opportunity of healing fractured relationships with family and those affected by their actions.
Out of acceptance of themselves and of a power which can achieve more than they would dare to dream, there arises an opportunity to face their own wounds and the hurt that they have inflicted on others.
To offer a journey of reconciliation for those who feel shame and alienation from family and mainstream society. This implies we create links whilst they are in prison and ongoing support using Church networks in their initial attempts to integrate in society after their release from prison.
To offer those spiritual ways of literature and symbols which inmates seek in their ongoing search for wholeness and healing.
To provide appropriate Church services at regular times for all who wish to attend so that they can express their faith in a communal way, receive affirmation from each other and especially on those occasions when events, such as death, impact very heavily on them.
– Affirm the role of other professionals such as psychologists, counsellors, medical staff and prison officers in our pastoral care and strive for a harmonious and cooperative relationship with them for the ultimate benefit of the clients. Chaplains must walk on a communal search with those people and not short circuit the process of seeking, questioning and eventually finding satisfactory answers to their needs.
Chaplains are always available for prison staff who require the need for chaplaincy services.
“Prison Chaplains who come in as a chaplain are all payed staff, so it’s a combination of priests, religious, and lay working in the prisons,” Mr O’Brien noted.
Mr O’Brien also stated that while he was happy to speak about God to the prisoners, he emphasised that giving them hope and support was the biggest priority.
“It’s not about pushing my faith,” he said. “What we bring is hope – that’s the role of a chaplain.”
From pages 14 to 15 of Issue 20: ‘Wellbeing: Building stronger communities that flourish as a whole’ of The Record Magazine