The prison chaplain in the Covid era
By Lydia O’Kane
Over the past year, many people have been coming together to lend their help and support to each other as the invisible enemy that is COVID-19 continues to spread.
One has only to look at the thousands of people volunteering at vaccine centres, helping to ensure the process of administering inoculations runs smoothly.
Healthcare workers too continue their vital jobs on the front lines along with hospital chaplains who are there to comfort the sick, the dying and their families.
Prison and COVID-19
Added to that are the prison chaplains who are there to offer pastoral care and support to those in custody.
As the spread of COVID-19 continues unabated, its impact is being keenly felt by those in prison.
For those in custody, their lockdown is a continuous one until the day they are released. But now, added to this isolation and due to the pandemic, they are not able to receive visits from loved ones, and they fear for their families and friends outside who have succumbed to the virus.
Around Ireland, there are twelve prisons served by 24 prison chaplains. According to the Irish Prison Service, the total number of prisoners who tested positive for Covid-19 from March 2020 to 20th January 2021 is 51. Twenty-six have been prison-based transmission and twenty-five community transmission.
Currently, Irish prisons are COVID free, and the service has been widely praised for its response to the pandemic, which has led to them to submitting a paper to the World Health Organization serving as a model of best practice for keeping COVID-19 out of prisons.
Prison chaplaincy has a role primarily to those in custody, but it also provides support and pastoral care to prison service staff and has been seen as an essential prison service throughout the outbreak of the virus.
Prison Chaplaincy and technology
So how has the prison chaplain’s role changed during the pandemic? Head Chaplain with the Irish Prison Service, Seán Duggan, responded to that question, explaining that the chaplaincy has embraced and made strides in the whole area technology.
Normally those in custody would be able to converse with a chaplain in various areas of the prison, but due to current Public Health measures, new and innovative ways to reach out to inmates are also being used: one such idea is the Tele Chaplaincy. According to Mr Duggan, “a prisoner in his or her cell has the facility to ring their own prison based chaplain for a confidential conversation.” He points out that technology has not replaced the presence of chaplains, but it is being used to assist and support their work.
Another area where technology has flourished has been in the streaming of religious celebrations and opportunities for reflections, which are streamed into the TV system of the prisons throughout the country.
Being a voice
From the time a person in prison starts his or her journey, said Mr Duggan, they will go through all the life experiences that those in communities outside have to cope with, including bereavement, trying to adjust to new situations, trying to keep their family relationships going, and keeping in contact with their loved ones.
In addition, he noted, the chaplain is often seen as the “voice of the prisoner” in the many day to day aspects of prison life, and in the area of advocacy on behalf of those in custody.
Asked if prisoners have felt a sense of anxiety as a result of the pandemic, Mr Duggan said that just as in many communities, there has been “worry and concern” about COVID-19.
One of the areas that has impacted prisoners during the outbreak has been the suspension of prison visits, which the Head Chaplain said has led to the introduction of video calls for those in custody and their loved ones in the community. “It’s important to say,” he points out, that "video calls are no replacement for the physical visit to the prison, and there are pros and cons to it, but it has been an important support and a way of keeping in contact with their loved ones in the family.”
Another challenge that the Chaplaincy continues to respond to is the whole area of bereavement and helping people to deal with their grief.
Mr Duggan highlights that with the advent of webcams in churches, it has meant that those in custody have the opportunity to follow the funeral of a loved one or friend. Chaplains, he said, are also on hand to accompany prisoners during a time of bereavement.
“These are difficult life experiences and there’s no easy way to deal with them, but what is important for those in custody is that they know they have a chaplain there always to access… and that has been the case throughout the pandemic; it has never ceased,” he said.
Increase in Chaplain requests
Mr Duggan noted that although there has always been an uptake in Chaplaincy support, the demand in Irish prisons has increased with the onset of the pandemic, coming in many different forms and especially around the area of pastoral care and spiritual support.
What has come to the fore, since the beginning of the pandemic, is that more Chaplains are needed within the prison service, and Mr Duggan hopes that one of the areas of learning arising out of the pandemic will be the “unique role and contribution that Chaplaincy continues to make, and also the need and demand that is there among the prisoner population.”
As Easter fast approaches and in the context of the current restrictions, Seán Duggan and his team have been busy making sure that those in custody have the resources they require for Holy Week. Prayer texts are being provided and Masses will be streamed into prisons commemorating Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection.
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