‘I was in prison and you came to see me’ (Mt. 25.36) Chaplaincy in prisons

Kathleen Diamond HFB was the Roman Catholic Chaplain at ­Holloway Prison until its closure in 2016. Here she reflects on how chaplains reach out to some of the most vulnerable members of society

From the earliest days chaplains have had a central role, and while in the UK ‘the Chaplain’ was from the established Church of England, the Roman Catholic chaplain has always had an essential role in the pastoral care of the women and men who are sentenced by the courts. In recent years, chaplains have increasingly worked as a team, on an ecumenical and multi-faith level, while giving priority to one’s own denomination or faith. The chaplain does not have to be a priest, but men and women Religious and more so nowadays, lay men and women who have the necessary qualifications for the role. For the Eucharist and other sacraments, a priest from a local parish, if available, may preside, though often the chaplain conducts a Word and Communion service when necessary.

I had the privilege of spending over 20 years in prison – as Roman Catholic Chaplain in HMP Holloway, and before that part-time in Woodhill male prison. I say ‘privilege’ as the longer I was involved in this ministry the more I appreciated the reality of Jesus’ message– ‘as long as you did it to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me’ (Mt.25.40).

In every prison there are certain statutory duties to be fulfilled by the chaplain, and these are usually shared by all the chaplains:
• meeting all the men or women at reception or the day after they arrive from the courts to check their well-being and give information about Mass or other services, group activities in the chaplaincy, opportunity for personal counselling etc;
• visiting daily those in the care and separation unit (segregated because of an offence in the prison or for the safety of other prisoners);
• visiting the hospital unit – a high percentage of prisoners have mental health problems;
• where applicable visiting the vulnerable prisoner wing (for sex offenders).

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