Brian Bargent is a Roman Catholic prison chaplain working across two men’s prisons, HMP Exeter, a category “B” local remand and young offenders prison, and HMP Channings Wood, a category “C” prison near Newton Abbot.
Being a Roman Catholic chaplain in a men’s prison is both challenging and humbling. As part of a multi-faith chaplaincy team, my role is to provide spiritual guidance, emotional support, and pastoral care to the men – Catholics and those of other faiths and none. This often involves helping prisoners navigate difficult personal situations and providing opportunities for them to engage with their faith. We are not there to proselytise, but to support the men, regardless of their crime. We also support officers and staff who may have work-related or personal stresses.
We see all prisoners when they first come in and check their family or loved ones know where they are. When prisoners are disruptive or violent, they may be placed in segregation. We are required to see prisoners “in the seg” every day and can provide distraction packs, Bibles, Christian literature etc to help them pass the time.
Many of the prisoners have addictions or mental health issues. Many have been in care or have experienced abuse. Services are available to help. Prison is not the best environment for healing, but it may be the only opportunity the men get. The average reading age of a prisoner is 11. Educational and work opportunities are encouraged.
Some of the men have not thought about God in a while. It is heart-warming how many speak of the influence their Nan’s faith has had on them. Now, in a sticky situation, with little money, possessions, or power, some recognise they need help to change. Prison can serve as a spiritual “time in the desert”: all pretence and ego burnt away by the searing “desert sun”, leaving them alone in the presence of God. This can create a powerful desire for conversion.
As a chaplain it is humbling when you see the great caritas the men show at times to each other and to you. I think of a prisoner who insisted I accept a half-used pen in thanks for something I had done for him. I can’t recall what little thing I’d done, but I will never forget that gift, given from what little he had. I think of the prisoner who made a small matchstick monument as a gift for another prisoner who had recently lost a child. Christ truly present.
One of the most important aspects of a chaplain’s role is enabling prisoners to practice their faith, providing access to the sacrament of Reconciliation, and weekly Mass: coordinating with the priest, deacon, volunteer musician and parish visitors – who, in visiting the imprisoned, remind the men they are part of the wider Body of Christ. Prisoners light prayer candles after Mass and we engage in conversation about issues that are “real” to them. These can be powerful moments. I recall one prisoner with a bullying swagger who, after returning from placing a lighted candle on the altar, began quietly sobbing next to me, so we moved to an adjacent room for a chat.
We accompany prisoners as they deal with personal difficulties and tragedies. This can range from providing support in the wake of a family member’s death and applying for them to attend the funeral, to helping prisoners cope with serious illness.
Whatever the situation, as a Roman Catholic chaplain my role is to be a source of comfort and guidance, to share the Good News of Jesus Christ, help the men reflect on their behaviour, to take responsibility for the past but not be held prisoner by it, and encourage them to take steps towards personal transformation.
If you would like to donate to provide basics, such as clothing and bibles for those in prison, please click this link: Caritas Prison Chaplains Fund – Give A Little