“I remember the feeling was quite daunting as I did not know what to expect,” Br Stephen said.
“To my surprise most prisoners are quite understanding towards new chaplains like myself.”
Br Stephen was reflecting on his role with the Prison Chaplain Service in the lead-up to Prison Sunday on November 11 which was initiated by Pope Francis during the Year of Mercy in 2016.
The focus this year is on youth justice and Br Stephen said it was sad to see young prisoners at both Yatala and the Remand Centre, which he recently started visiting.
“I try to give them words of encouragement and impart messages of hope where possible,” he said.
“Many of my visits are either through requests or referrals. At every visit I try to come with an openness of heart and attentive ears, to be present and to listen to whatever the prisoners wish to share.”
Br Stephen said he found many of the prisoners he met expressed some sort of acknowledgement of faith and/or belief in God. Requests for Bibles were common and many were happy to receive devotional reading materials and reflections.
“Our discussion on faith and the message of God’s love and mercy is often a strong source of hope and encouragement for them,” the Capuchin Franciscan brother said.
“We are able to arrange and make available the sacraments of baptism, reconciliation and Eucharist for those who wish to receive them during their time in prison.”
In contrast to Br Stephen, Mel Monfries has been serving as a prison chaplain for “166 months” and said it had been her “absolute privilege”.
“From the first day I felt ‘at home’ in the various prisons in which I’ve worked,” she said.
“Meeting the men, listening to their stories, each as unique as they are; some heartbreaking, some shocking to realise the terror, pain and abuse they have grown up knowing but not knowing love or care, others simply stupid!”
Mel said it was essential to have a non-judgemental attitude to become a companion on the journey through the justice system.
“To offer hope that only can be found after soul searching and accepting (if they are guilty) the reality of their transgression and the repercussions for all concerned,” she said.
“When a person is incarcerated the effect on their family and friends is immediate and can be devastating…many criminal events occur on the spur of the moment, a moment that will have all kinds of actions and reactions for years to come.”
She said a prisoner was not “born”.
“Some people fall through the cracks of the societal support system and sadly rarely make the wisest decisions when an apparent opportunity to ‘make good on something’ presents itself.”
Fellow prison chaplain Brother Martyn Paxton agreed that society was failing many marginalised people.
“The vast majority of people in prison are from low socio-economic backgrounds with low educational attainment,” he said.
“Many have cognitive disorders and/or problems with substance abuse.
“Our society’s support structures are failing to support these people with the result that they end up in prison.”
Br Martyn said the collective failure to ensure that people leaving prison were supported meant that many would return “over and over again”.
The way to defeat this “vicious cycle” was action at community level with individuals and groups combining to provide the essential supports.
He challenged Church communities to be welcoming and receive those who are seeking desperately to change their lives.
“We cannot all visit a prison but we can all be involved in supporting people who are facing the great challenge of rebuilding their lives in our midst.”
Helena Sweeney, also a member of the Archdiocesan chaplaincy team, said “trust, respect, non-judgemental deep listening and a sense of humour” were important.
“For me personally, prison chaplaincy is an area where the Good News of a God who loves us unconditionally and who meets us in our brokenness really comes alive,” she said.
“Listening to prisoners’ stories has also challenged me to reflect on where we as a wider community could work more effectively to support transformation through education and restorative support systems.”
Adelaide priest Fr Michael McCaffrey sees Catholic prisoners, including some young adults, who request the sacrament of reconciliation.
“Prisoners have a lot of time to think about things, to self-reflect,” Fr McCaffrey said.
“They are looking to restore wounded relationships with God and others. To be invited into that space for the sacrament of reconciliation is very special.
“It’s a powerful expression of God’s healing and mercy.”