Being with Jesus in Jail

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A priest prays with a death-row inmate in in a US jail. Photo: Tim Hunt, Northwest Indiana Catholic

Meet four people who couldn’t be happier about spending time in some of the country’s harshest places.

Fran Schubert, Deacon Mike Williams, Fr Greg Walsh CM and Geraldine Bowes are prison chaplains for the Diocese of Bathurst. They shared with The Catholic Weekly the highs and lows of their role and why they love it so much.

Mission and Renewal Director Deacon Josh Clayton says that as the diocese has a number of correctional facilities in the region, it presents great opportunities for mission. Just a couple of hours’ drive west from Sydney, it offers unique opportunities for anyone who is passionate about taking Christ’s light into places that are often forgotten.

“Yes there are people in prison who have done bad things, but I sometimes think each of us could be one bad decision away from being in jail ourselves, whether it was texting while we’re driving or making another silly mistake” Deacon Josh told The Catholic Weekly.

“And I hope that if I ended up in prison that there’ll be someone who will come in and bring God’s love to me. I hope I deserve it and I think they do too.”

Apart from their ministry of presence, the dream team would also like to see better support for people upon their release into the wider community.

“We have people such as Fr Steve Sinn SJ in our diocese working with a small number of people post-release in a community called The Bridge to try and connect them with normal life,” Deacon Josh explained.

Governor of the Macquarie Correctional Centre in Wellington, Brad Peebles. Photo: Courtesy CSNSW
Governor of the Macquarie Correctional Centre in Wellington, Brad Peebles. Photo: Courtesy CSNSW

“We’d also like to build up our capacity in our parishes of people who could go into jail as a chaplain’s assistant.

“We see it as a great opportunity to be able to remove some of the stigma people have about jails and those who live in them or are leaving them.”

“All our chaplains have great dreams of creating centres where people can make those first steps after release from jail to a better life.

“Because the biggest danger is of them falling back into the life they were in before and ending up back in jail.”

Governor of the Macquarie Correctional Centre in Wellington, Brad Peebles, echoed the thoughts of many of the area’s prison inmates and staff, telling The Catholic Weekly that its chaplain is “the soul of the centre”.

“Fran personally, and the chaplaincy service in general, is an essential part of the toolkit in managing behaviour in custody and in effecting change in people who are often broken and feel rejected by the community,” Mr Peebles said.

“It’s essential that people during the process of change, have a non-judgemental person who cares about them and accepts them as human beings.

“Although Catholic, Fran has the gift of being loved and respected by people from all denominations and this also includes our Islamic and Buddhist inmates.”

A foreboding sight: the main gates to Bathurst Prison stand locked. Diocesan prison chaplains visit several correctional facilities. Photo: Flickr/denisbin
A foreboding sight: the main gates to Bathurst Prison stand locked. Diocesan prison chaplains visit several correctional facilities.
Photo: Flickr/denisbin

Fran Schubert
Macquarie Correctional Centre, Wellington

1. How long have you been a chaplain?

Two years, I’m still on my ‘L’ plates!

2. Why did you decide to become a prison chaplain?

I have had the passion for assisting people all my life. It is in my family genes. I applied for a similar position in anther correctional centre 10 years ago, but it was not to be. In our Lord’s time, the lepers were the outcasts in society, I believe inmates are the leper of today. My personal ethos is to “treat people how I would like to be treated”.

Working at Macquarie Correctional Centre is the highlight of my working life and I believe everything I have done and experienced in my life’s journey (the good, the bad and the ugly!) has been the right training for this role.

Fran Schubert.
Fran Schubert.

3. What are the highlights of prison ministry for you?

Highlights for me occur everyday as I work in an environment with people from all walks of life. Everyone has a story. I witness many beautiful “God moments “ everyday including inmates “unofficially” mentoring new inmates, staff bringing inmates to me who just need someone to listen to them.

I see different departmental staff working together as the “team around the inmate” to achieve the best possible outcomes for the individual. I am affectionately referred to as the “God Botherer” which I take as a compliment, personally, I think I am more of a” people botherer” as I often intercede on an inmate’s behalf.

4. What is the biggest challenge that you face?

The biggest challenge is ensuring continued support after inmates are released from our care such as gaining appropriate accommodation and employment opportunities, though Community Corrections staff do assist with this. Inmates cannot even volunteer once they have a criminal record and there is still a lack of mentor-type people/structures/organisations.

5. What is your greatest wish for the people you support in prisons?

My wish is that our inmates get all the support they need. And my personal wish is to be God’s presence for those who need me the most. To quote one of my favourite saints, St Francis of Assisi “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary, use words”.

When I was in jail, you visited me: a US prison chaplain, main photo, delivers Communion to a prisoner. Photo: Karen Callaway, Northwest Indiana Catholic
When I was in jail, you visited me: a US prison chaplain, main photo, delivers Communion to a prisoner. Photo: Karen Callaway, Northwest Indiana Catholic

Deacon Mike Williams
Wellington Correctional Centre

1. How long have you been a chaplain?

Ten years next month.

2. Why did you decide to become a prison chaplain?

I had become redundant in my role as a teacher in Wellington. I had begun formation for the Diaconate prior to leaving teaching. I was asked by the parish priest to apply for the position of chaplain at WCC. He believed that I would be suitable for the
ministry.

Deacon Mike Williams.
Deacon Mike Williams.

3. What are the highlights of prison ministry for you?

Being trusted to be invited into the story of the lives of the most broken and marginalised people of our society. I am privileged to be the listening heart in a place that punishes those who are outcasts of our society which demonises people whose pathway in life was almost destined to lead to the scrapheap of humanity.

4. What is the biggest challenge that you face?

Convincing the outside world that those in prison are people like them with the same aspirations, dreams and search for meaning as them. The difference being that they more often than not, have not experienced in a positive way. Reassuring people in prison that they are not irredeemable and that they are capable of a relationship with a loving and forgiving God.

5. What is your greatest wish for the people you support in prisons?

That they will be reconciled with their families, the community, their God and themselves. That they will find meaning, purpose and peace in their life beyond prison.

Lithgow Correctional Centre. Photo: Courtesy CSNSW
Lithgow Correctional Centre. Photo: Courtesy CSNSW

Fr Greg Walsh CM
Bathurst Correctional Centre

1. How long have you been a chaplain?

I have been a jail chaplain here for seven years.

2. Why did you decide to become a prison chaplain?

I chose to become a prison chaplain for several reasons. It is a ministry that fits with the Vincentian charism and Fr Michael Walsh CM had been in the role at Long Bay and loved it. Also I had some experience of visiting jails in Numinbah and Honiara. Lastly, my appointment in Solomon Islands was coming to an end and there was a need for a chaplain in Bathurst Diocese which my Provincial suggested I consider.

Fr Greg Walsh CM.
Fr Greg Walsh CM.

3. What are the highlights of prison ministry for you?

The highlights of the ministry for me have been spontaneous encounters that turned into deep conversations, prolonged positive relationships with staff and inmates, being present in times of great grief, becoming ‘at home’ in the jail, getting to know the officers better and being a familiar face when prisoners, sadly, returned for another time ‘inside’. It has also been a privilege to welcome some people into a place of worship for the first time in their lives and to help them a little to learn about what the Christian faith is.

4. What is the biggest challenge that you face?

I’m quite a reserved person, and I think a more outgoing person would be of more help to the staff and prisoners.

5. What is your greatest wish for the people you support in prisons?

My greatest wish is that people living and working in jail would be kinder to their peers.

Macquarie Correctional Centre. Photo: Courtesy CSNSW
Macquarie Correctional Centre. Photo: Courtesy CSNSW

Geraldine Bowes
Lithgow Correctional Centre

1. How long have you been a chaplain?

Just over six years in total.

2. Why did you decide to become a prison chaplain?

I first became a prison chaplain in 2012 at Bathurst CC and was there for a period of six months but due to health issues had to give it up. I had been a registered nurse in Oberon C.C and Bathurst C.C for a period of over 12 years.

In my time as a “gaol nurse” I began to understand the needs of this marginalised population, their mental, emotional and spiritual needs, and felt, on retiring from nursing that I had something to offer with spiritual growth.

I felt with my mental health experience and my time spend in gaol, I had some understanding of the trauma and loneliness that these inmates encounter while incarcerated. I recognised the need for inmates to be able to relate to someone who had their interests at heart and who would communicate with them in a non-threatening, non-judgemental manner.

Geraldine Bowes.
Geraldine Bowes.

3. What are the highlights of prison ministry for you?

Lithgow CC, being a maximum goal, can be a harsh environment for both staff and inmates and being able to get through each day without unrest and violence is a highlight of any day.

For me, to be able to sit with an inmate and listen to his fears, hopes for the future, regrets for his past, and praying together can be a powerful experience.

The main highlight for me on any day is the fact that I may have made a difference for one person and being able to give them hope for the future.

Many of the inmates are doing long sentences with some doing life and if I can assure them that God has not given up on them it can have a changing effect as to where they are at with themselves and with the Lord.

4. What is the biggest challenge that you face?

There are challenges daily in a maximum security goal, the main one being not having enough hours in the day to follow up on everyone.

5. What is your greatest wish for the people you support in prisons?

My greatest wish for the inmates that I minister to is that they find peace within themselves and are able to forgive both themselves and others and begin to heal both mentally and spiritually.

My wish for the staff of the centre is that they can do this difficult job without becoming harsh and cynical and that they can leave the job behind as they leave the centre.


Bathurst prison ministry

Number of prisons in central west NSW: 5
Total number of inmates: 1450
Post-release support: The Bridge, a residential community for people needing assistance to pursue their own goals for education, work, developing living skills, and other support.

Could you bring Christ there?

Might you be called to be a prison chaplain, or a chaplain’s assistant, to bring hope to some of the most vulnerable people in regional NSW? Call Deacon Josh Clayton on 0458 261 513 or email [email protected]