Hear from a prison chaplain: what’s it really like?

Author: Samaritans CEO, Brad Webb

For the true crime/reality tv/Netflix fans, have you seen the series called “First and Last”?

Each episode follows inmates on their first or last day in Gwinnett County Jail, a pre-trial holding facility in the US state of Georgia.

In the series we meet people like Alex, a young African American man who is brought in with two others, all arrested after being in a car together when allegedly drugs are found in the vehicle. Alex is coerced by the older men accompanying him to take the charge of drug possession, despite the fact he was in the car simply to get a ride to the hairdresser. On his first day, Alex pleads with his family on a phone call to bail him out, expressing fear at what might happen if he stays in prison.

We also meet a woman on her last day. As she exits prison, her relief of being released is visible, but it is coupled with the fear about what may happen next. She was leaving prison on a Friday and wanted to enter a rehabilitation facility immediately to ensure she stays on a straight path, however she can’t check in until the Monday. She was afraid of what might happen over the weekend.

These programs serve as a reminder that we, and every person around us, has a story, and it’s often much more multifaceted than we may assume. People caught up in correctional facilities are no different.

As you may know, Samaritans provides a range of support programs for people who are in, or who are exiting, prison.

The very talented Recovery Point Team in Newcastle is there for the “last day” to try and give people the best chance possible to get their lives back on track. Recovery Point provides practical assistance and support to people who are leaving prison, approaching the transition into the community one step at a time; from assistance with finding accommodation, clothing, opening a bank account and looking for work.

Samaritans also funds chaplains within local prisons to support inmates and their wellbeing while they’re inside.

Chris Jackson is the Chaplain for both staff and detainees at the Frank Baxter Youth Justice Centre.

He recently spoke about what a day in the life of his job might look like, and I’ve included his words below with his consent.

(content warning: the passage below contains reference to self-harm).

Fr Chris Jackson, Chaplain of a juvenille justice centre on the Central Coast

Many of our young guys are in this terrible situation where they feel like they’ve hit rock bottom and life is just coming to that crashing point of not knowing what’s next, and they’re crying out for someone.

The Chaplain is this privileged position of saying, “I do care and I want to listen to you…maybe I can’t fix it but I want to come alongside you and hear you talk about that”. It’s a great privilege. It’s extraordinary to get paid to do that, I love my role.

I spend a lot of my time with our young guys; that can be playing tennis or football or cards, then I’ll get a call and have to go see someone who has self-harmed or just found out a family member has passed. Or someone may have an issue with court coming up or issues around family domestic violence; all those conversations are had any number of times throughout the day. At any one moment it can be one thing and it changes very suddenly, but I love my job, I love what I do. It’s so raw and so authentic.

It’s a detention centre so it’s like a prison, there’s barbed wire and it’s harsh and it can be really confronting, and the chapel space is something different to that. It’s softer, there’s colours, there’s bean bags and a chance to sit down and have a cold drink and biscuits, because that’s how human beings connect.

It’s confronting and upsetting to see young men who I’ve known for a while self-harm. It’s also difficult to see staff who’ve worked in that place for a long time and struggle with the fact that so many boys reoffend or end up in prison. That can be really taxing and negative on their morale.

It’s a tough place and the Chaplain is someone who’s always offering a calming presence and trying to draw out the good in a situation or in a person and help people see things in a different light.

We can’t make people make good choices but we’re trying to show these young guys what a good life can look like, so if we can open some doors and help them to realise their potential, it’s an amazing thing.

If this article has raised concerns for you or for a loved one, you can call Lifeline 13 11 14, Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636 or Mensline on 1300 78 99 78.