The challenge of being Mercy for prisoners


Just imagine a person released from prison who, having heard the Good News of the Gospel from a prison chaplain, goes to church, but the person he or she sits next to shuffles away and shifts a handbag to the other side.

Or imagine that same former prisoner going to church and having people look at him or her sideways, or not talk at all.

What of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that the person heard preached in prison, a Gospel which offers grace, forgiveness, new life, transformation and discipleship, asked prison chaplain Rev. Richard Ward.

A challenge for the Church is not just engaging with prisoners inside jails, but also in the community when they are released, Rev. Ward told a forum at the St Columba Centre in Ponsonby on November 6.

Rev. Ward, a Presbyterian minister, is one of the chaplains at the Mt Eden Corrections Facility, working alongside Catholic chaplain Peter Hay-MacKenzie.

The forum was organised by the Auckland diocese’s Justice and Peace Commission for the Jubilee for Prisoners as part of the Year of Mercy.

Several prison chaplains in Auckland diocese shared their experiences in prison ministry, as well as the hopes and real fears they have for the people with whom they work.

Reginald Wills, who is a chaplain at the Auckland South Corrections Facility in Wiri, spoke of a goal in that institution of reducing re-offending and the various ways this is attempted — by trying to prepare prisoners for a better life by, for example, educating them and upskilling
them, preparing them for work and the transition back to normal life.

But Mr Wills recalled the reactions from some members of his wider family when he spoke of this approach.

The reaction was: “They have done real harm, they are in a prison, it should be minimum food, hard labour all day, when they get back at night, lock them in their cells and they don’t get out till next morning.”

Mr Wills said: “I said that to a group of prisoners I was working with, and they said, if we were treated like that, tell those people that I would like to come out and live next to them when I get out.”

“[The prisoners] really understand the need for re-integration, a lot of them do.”

But many who spoke at the forum pointed to the difficulties many former prisoners experience trying to find work and accommodation when they are released — despite the best efforts of Government and community-based support agencies.

Businessman and prison volunteer Malcolm Walkinshaw spoke of the difficulties faced by many prisoners who do want to change.

There’s often a lack of self-esteem, inner strength and discipline, returning to a negative environment, an unforgiving, untrusting public, the stigma of having been in jail and a lack of employment and accommodation options.

Mr Walkinshaw said the best option for many offenders who have been in prison for a long time, according to probation officers, is to be employed in a small business, rather than a large corporation.

An owner-operator can “keep close tabs on the offender”, who in turn feels a sense of belonging and can become a better citizen.

Mr Walkinshaw, who has employed at-risk youth himself, appealed for more employers to give former prisoners a chance.

Auckland diocese Catholic Social Services director John Metherell acknowledged the emotional and physical harm caused by crime, but said the forum was looking at the offender.

He noted New Zealand society is becoming more risk averse, but appealed for more parishioners to come forward to be prison volunteers, firstly working inside prisons to learn the ropes, but then working in the community to help prisoners reintegrate with society.

“The vast majority of prisoners, in my experience, don’t want to go back to prison,” said Mr Metherell, whose had previously worked in the Probation Service and in prisons.

The high rate of Maori imprisonment (Maori are 50 per cent of the prison population, but only 15 per cent of the national population) was noted during discussions at the forum, as was the
link between poverty and crime, and the problem of gangs.

Auckland diocese’s Justice and Peace Commission sent 12,000 pamphlets titled “Reflecting on Crime and Punishment in the Year of Mercy” to parishes in the fortnight before the prisoner jubilee.

The pamphlets listed practical responses and volunteer organisations people could contact. It also gave a contact for victim support.

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Michael Otto

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