Confessions of a Prison Chaplain
Reviewed by William H. Mueller
When I read about Quakers in the prison environment, I look for usefulness of prison volunteer work, chaplaincy, worship groups, Alternatives to Violence programs, and inmate visitation. Confessions of a Prison Chaplain is excellent for this purpose. At first, I was put off by the word “confessions” in the title. But as I read, I realized its appeal is in the frankness and openness with which Mary Brown treats her doubts and fears, her frustrations with prison officialdom, and the environment of an aging prison. She labors with challenges to her liberal biases, doubts about whether she did the right thing by an inmate, breaking the rules on occasion for compassion’s sake, and the disparagement by the chaplaincy of being only a volunteer (and sometimes, she suspected, a Quaker). In fact, Brown sometimes found herself having to perform all the chaplaincy duties if no one else was there. Her generosity in sharing these confessions makes this book rich for others considering such work.
Most of the book covers the ten years Brown was a prison chaplain volunteer in an aging Victorian “B-class” prison in England (B-class is something like our medium/maximum security). Her experience also includes ten days as “an inmate on remand,” following a demonstration against nuclear arms in the 1960s, and as a teacher in an “open prison” the 1980s. The experiences she shares took place in British prisons, but this is no drawback. I found them much as what one can expect here, but the British system is somewhat more humane. For example, I was surprised when a prisoner said there was almost always someone (from the staff) to whom you could talk when troubled. The training for correction officers must be different than what I have observed in the United States.
Who would have thought that Brown could establish a “silent meeting” as part of her ministry, and how popular it became? Prison officials were skeptical at first. She knew it was best not to call it a Quaker meeting, but came instead up with “Multi-faith Silent Meeting for Meditation, Mindfulness, Prayer, Worship.” These meetings attracted ten to twenty inmates of many faiths; almost every gathering had at least one person for whom this was a new experience. One man said, “It is so quiet in here, this is the only place in the prison where we can get away from all the noise, the banging, and the shouting.” But there was one man who couldn’t bear it; the silence brought out unwanted demons. The hour-long meetings were followed by tea, biscuits, and discussion.
She found it harder to see that of God in staff than she did in the inmates, and considers this one of her failings. It is easy to feel this way under the circumstances. We may forget that the staff is under many of the same institutional constraints as the prisoners, and this stymies relationships, which are what the prisoner needs most in this unnatural and difficult environment.
Some of the topics Brown addresses are faith in all its varieties or lack of: education in prison, death, Christmas, and “lifers.” The book ends with two brief chapters on Restorative (RJ) and Positive Justice. Positive Justice includes RJ, but aims to promote public awareness of the shortcomings of the present system and encourage moving away from punishment and toward treatment.
Scattered throughout are thoughtful quotations. I believe that a common attitude is seeing the prisoner as irredeemably “bad,” and positive interventions as not working. So I like the quote from Alexander Solzhenitsyn: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were only necessary to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil runs through the heart of every human being, and who wants to destroy a piece of his [sic] own heart?” And the quote from Marianne Williamson that follows, “We are all meant to shine as children do. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone.” In her ten years as a prison volunteer, Brown never met a single person who wasn’t “meant to shine.” This truth shines through in her experiences, making this a valuable read for those currently active in or contemplating prison ministry.