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Waterside Press are giving away a copy of Confessions of a Prison Chaplain by Mary Brown and Opening the Doors: A Prison Chaplain’s Life on the Inside by Paul Gill in a prize worth over £30. Here, Bryan Gibson writes about the titles which follow the authors' work…
A stereotype image of the prison chaplain is perhaps of a ‘meddling do-gooder’ who can embarrass hardened inmates by talking to them as if they are children. Someone ‘born yesterday’ who is distant, easy to con, wears a ‘dog-collar’ or beads, is not from the establishment concerned, and who pops up now and again with a kindly smile on his face (unlike the guards).
But modern chaplains are not like that – and they can be a real ‘safety valve’ and outside link. Nowadays they are likely to be from one of a number of faiths (or even none), part of a team – including women – dedicated to a non-judgmental approach. They are a central component in diffusing tensions, reducing re-offending and helping offenders to change (or rescue) heart, mind and even life. If this sounds pompous it’s the nature of the work!
Two wholly down to earth and long-serving chaplains are Paul Gill (an Anglican) and Mary Brown (a Quaker). Mary describes her role in Confessions of a Prison Chaplain a no-holds barred account of a prison chaplain’s life on the wings where she writes that: "Quakers have a long history of imprisonment for conscience’s sake’ and therefore some understanding of what it can be like to be locked-up." She also tells how hard it is to deliver "bad news" and includes personal accounts of surviving life inside by Jack, Billy, Daryl, Keith and others.
Paul Gill has returned from Australia where he not only worked in prisons but also wrote a successful book, Opening the Doors: A Prison Chaplain’s Life on the Inside. This has just been re-issued in a first and re-vamped English version. It’s an attractive and colorfully illustrated coffee-table style book that prisoners and others will find attractive, easy to read and digest. Paul gives advice on a whole range of topics affecting prisoners and speaks with a voice packed with understanding of prisoner-related issues and the foibles of the penal system.
So nowadays chaplains tend to be ‘normal’ people dedicated to helping those of whatever faith (or none), filling some of the gaps left by under-funding and cuts. The modern trend is certainly towards a much more relaxed and inclusive approach than existed in the austere days Oscar Wilde wrote of in his Ballad of Reading Gaol:
‘There is no chapel on the day
On which they hang a man:
The Chaplain's heart is far too sick,
Or his face is far too wan,
Or there is that written in his eyes
Which none should look upon.’
As these two books show the modern chaplaincy is a vibrant and active facility that prisoners (and staff) might do well to engage with.
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