You don’t have to be a saint to minister to the 4000 inmates at Long Bay and Silverwater Jails … but according to Fr Peter Carroll sometimes it would help.
The gentle priest is chaplain to some of the state’s most violent prisoners, and says he is probably the only person he knows who is actually happy to enter the NSW prison system.
Affectionately known as “Chappy”, he bridges the gap between the religious and secular world and provides practical and emotional support to inmates for everything from their spiritual needs to personal relationships, grief counselling, family breakdown, illnesses, trauma and bereavement. And while he deals with murderers, terrorists, paedophiles and violent offenders on a daily basis, he still sees the possibility of redemption amid all the misery and hopelessness.
“Everybody’s worth a second chance, that’s why the church is here, that’s what it’s about, forgiveness and coming back,” he said.
“God loves us all no matter what we have done, I think people forget that.
“They have been judged by the courts, and to some extent society, they don’t need to be judged by me as well.”
Fr Peter has been working as a prison chaplain for 16 years and in that time despairs mostly at the numbers of recidivists which he says proves things have to be done differently.
Latest figures by the NSW Government Justice Bureau of Crime Statistics reveal almost 60 per cent of offenders, both juvenile and adult, are convicted of another offence within 10 years.
He said he can often identify those at risk of returning to prison due to the lack of resources and programs available once they are released.
“People often call it reintegration, but it’s not because we don’t always want people who have come out of prison to go back to where their problems started,” he said.
“It’s about building a bridge into the community – positive places where they can find a home. A community. Sometimes, even if they have had a home, families don’t want them back so they find themselves having to build new relationships which can be very challenging. Many end up homeless, living on the streets, addicted to substances which can lead a path straight back in here.”
Over the years, Fr Peter has “worked with” some of the state’s most notorious prisoners who have done things that are barely possible for them to live with let alone their victims.
And while many are jailed due to horrendous crimes of violence committed against others, he said once inside the most common type of violence he sees is the harm the inmates do to themselves. Suicide and self-harm sadly is all part of daily prison life.
Fr Peter said his time as a prison chaplain has gone a long way to strengthening his own faith and brought him closer to God and through his ministry he hopes he can in some way share his faith with the prisoners.
He celebrates Mass every Sunday and while he can’t determine whether attendance is due to a liking of the biscuits and coffee served after Mass, the opportunity to get out of work or the 60 minutes of quiet time in an otherwise noisy and confronting environment, he is sure everyone appreciates the chapel and respects what it represents.
“In my 16 years here, nobody has ever been hurt in the chapel, it’s the only place prisoners say they don’t feel like they are in jail, where they can feel safe,” he said.
“If you want to know where God lives go to some of the most desperate places imaginable and stand next to some of the most difficult people possible and He will show you a way through.
“God doesn’t talk through bad, He’s not like that. You will find him in jail. He is there for people in despair and knows there’s people in pain and in need of love, compassion and respect.
“I love what I do, my calling is here, I find strength in my relationship with Him and unlike everyone else I am in no rush to get out.”