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Providing pastoral support to prisoners

Watch humanist pastoral carer Amy Walden describe why she offers pastoral support in prisons
Prisoners would benefit from pastoral support in many ways and for many reasons. When somebody goes into prison they often lose huge parts of their life, they often lose their accommodation, they lose their employment most the time, they’re away from their families. Sometimes the offense they’ve committed means they can’t have contact with their families because they were the victims. So many of them are facing some really really difficult times.
They’re trying to make sense of their new place in the world and also a lot of them are facing problems such as substance misuse, mental health issues, literacy problems, so they really really are in need of support, and sometimes they’re experiencing things that are going on outside of prison but from within prison. So if somebody has a relationship that ends, they’re not able to then speak to the person who has ended the relationship or if they do suffer a bereavement but they can’t always go to the funeral, and it’s times like that where they may feel very very alone.
I’m a probation officer by trade and when I was seconded to the prison service, I noticed at the prison I was working at that the non-religious prisoners weren’t using the chaplaincy support available to the extent that the religious prisoners were because they didn’t feel it was relevant for them. Also, I noticed that the religious prisoners were getting more time out of their cell and more support from a network of other prisoners who shared their faith by attending Bible study, Qu’ran study, meditation sessions, etc. so I felt that it wasn’t very fair that there wasn’t anything equivalent for non-religious people and so I decided to do something about it.
So in order to address this, I took this issue to our diversity team and we discussed this and the governor agreed that I could do some research with the prisoners and staff to find out if a non-religious service was needed and, if so, what would they want that to look like. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive they felt that it was needed, they felt that it would be beneficial to have an equivalent to a chaplain to speak to on a one-to-one basis about their problems and for some support but also some kind of alternative to services. So I came up with the idea of having discussion groups, so I set some discussion groups up.
Any non-religious person could attend and we would talk about anything and everything. It gives them the chance to talk to people who’ve got a similar worldview to them and feel that they have some kind of sense of belonging because that’s really lacking and that’s really important to human beings. So, of course, when you take people out of society they don’t even have that support network they usually belong to and with the religious prisoners they have that faith base and they get to go to services and feel like they belong to that faith group, whereas non-religious prisoners didn’t have that.
When I was at the prison, there was one case that really sticks with me, he’d just lost his grandmother - he was really really close to his grandmother - she’d brought him up but due to the risk that he posed to the public, he wasn’t allowed to attend the funeral. So because he was telling me how he was feeling and he was feeling a bit lost and he was feeling angry that he couldn’t go to the funeral but also he felt like he’d let his grandmother down because he couldn’t do anything to mark her death.
So we decided to provide an alternative to going to the funeral, and the religious prisoners and the non-religious prisoners actually get the opportunity to go to the chapel and light a candle and say a prayer but for him you didn’t feel that that was going to help him because he didn’t believe in any god. So we went to the multi-faith room instead and we played his grandmother’s favourite song, which was the Welsh national anthem even though she wasn’t Welsh, and we read poems that he chose. I gave him a choice of poems and he chose one for him to read and he asked me to read one as well.
And we talked about his grandmother, his memories of her, the things that she used to cook for him, and the stories she used to tell him, and just really reflecting them on what she meant to him, and afterwards he said to me that he really found it useful because he got to do some mourning, and attending a funeral’s a very important part of mourning for a lot of people but also he got to tell his family that he’d done something too.
Sometimes people do ask me: ‘Why do this for prisoners? They’ve committed offenses against other people, sometimes some very serious ones. Why do you feel they deserve support?’ And I think my answer to them is that, as a humanist, I see people as a whole human being - not just their behaviour. So I feel that, as a human being, they do deserve some support and some care, and to be valued as a person because if we don’t value people as people that isn’t going to help them to be rehabilitated.

Amy Walden has worked in the criminal justice system for 12 years. In 2011 she initiated humanist pastoral support in prisons with a pilot project at HM Prison Winchester. This proved successful, and the initiative has now been introduced in other prisons. Amy is part of a team training Humanists UK members to deliver pastoral support in prisons and hospitals across the country as well as within the armed forces.

Currently humanist pastoral carers offer pastoral support in around 20% of UK prisons. This provision is on the rise.

Question: How important is it that prisoners have access to pastoral support?

This article is from the free online

Humanist Lives, with Alice Roberts

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FutureLearn - Learning For Life

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