Chaplains vital as Australia’s prison population grows

The work of Catholic prison chaplains was celebrated at a conference in Melbourne last week.

Catholic prison chaplains have heard how their mission is becoming increasingly vital as Australia’s corrections system expands, conservatively costing the country $16 billion annually.

The two-day gathering in Melbourne, supported by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and the Australian Catholic Prisoners Pastoral Care Council, focused on the theme “I have come that you may have life and have it to the full” (John 10:10).

Catholic chaplains currently visit prisoners, those on remand and refugees in detention centres to provide a range of pastoral care services and support for individuals and families. The national gathering last week sought to provide chaplains with time for formation, professional development, spiritual nourishment and fellowship with peers.

Bishop Don Sproxton, the Bishop Delegate to the Australian Catholic Prisoners Pastoral Care Council, said prison chaplains and youth justice ministers had a special but challenging role as they fulfilled their mission to respond to God’s call to stand with, serve and bring freedom to the poor, disadvantaged, oppressed and imprisoned.

“We know that the majority of Australia’s prisoners come from the most disadvantaged sections of the community: Indigenous people, the underprivileged and those suffering mental illness,” Bishop Sproxton said.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, there were 43,320 people in prison across Australia at the end of March 2019, representing a 30 per cent increase in five years or 71 per cent over the past decade.

Chaplains at the gathering discussed how both incarceration and someone’s release from prison have significant impacts on families and children. They explained that it is not only an offender who needs support when returning to the community; so, too, does the offender’s family, in order to reduce conflict and emotional difficulties on release.

Parishes can also provide important community support, the chaplains said. Offenders who successfully re-enter society have reduced rates of recidivism.

Melbourne Archbishop Peter A. Comensoli joined delegates for the conference dinner. Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen OFM Conv, the chair of the Bishops Commission for Social Justice – Mission & Service, was the keynote speaker dinner.

Those interested in taking part in prison ministry should contact their local diocese or parish office for more information.

Infographics relating to Australia’s corrections system can be accessed on the ACBC’s Facebook page.