Prison ministry helps men prepare for life in the community

Dhurringile Prison chaplains, from left, Fr Michael Morley, Debbie Turvey, Denise Woodman, Denice Bourke and John Lilford

In the lead up to the Pope’s World Day of the Poor, on Sunday, November 17, the Church in Australia is focusing on the many volunteers who work daily to help the poor in their communities. Read how parishes in rural Victoria are helping minimum security prisoners transition back into society.

Community Church Program, a parish prison ministry, is helping to transition serving prisoners to a life back in the community in country Victoria.

Long-time prison chaplain Denice Bourke is the liaison chaplain for the Hume region in Victoria and is a member of the Tatura parish. She works with a team of prison chaplains and volunteers in the parishes of Beechworth, Tatura, Kyabram and Mooroopna to drive participants to and from the Dhurrringle and Beechworth prisons to the parish community for Mass.

They also provide morning tea and spend time in prayer and conversation with prisoners.

Mrs Bourke, who serves as lead chaplain at Dhurringle Prison as part of CatholicCare Melbourne’s Catholic Prison Ministry team, says there is a great need for support for prisoners in north-central Victoria, to help them prepare to resume their place in society through the welcome, acceptance and enjoyment of experiencing time in a faith-filled community.

“Both prisons in the Hume region are low-security, transitioning prisons, so when the men are getting towards the end of their sentence, they participate in programs to rehabilitate them and prepare them for release for when they go back into society and to their families,” she explained.

Mass is celebrated in the prison once a week and, if they want to, the men who attend Mass can then go on to the Community Church Program.

“They come to Mass, they get involved with the liturgy, so they might take up the Gospel book or the gifts or sing in the choir,” Mrs Bourke explained.

“After Mass, we have a cuppa and morning tea with them, where they have the opportunity to interact on a social level with parishioners.”

While the program helps the men, “it’s also important for the parishioners to get to know the men as people rather than offenders”.

“And that in turn helps all in the wider society as well,” Mrs Bourke said. “They go back into society feeling encouraged and more hopeful because they’ve interacted with people who accept them. It gives them hope – hope that they can get their life back on track, and this is so beneficial for us all.”

Mrs Bourke has been involved with prison ministry for about 15 years. She said some prisoners really struggle when they do get out, and the program and prison ministry more broadly is aimed at easing that transition “so eventually they might contact the parish where they will be living and find acceptance there”.

“I consider prison ministry a privilege,” she said.

“I get far more out of it than the men I work with. I visit two afternoons a week and go into the units and the men are always very welcoming and they are very respectful. They really appreciate that we go into the prisons and listen and talk with them.

“We all greet them with a warm handshake. Quite a few will say to me, ‘I can’t believe that people want to shake hands with me’. We have a bookmark that reminds us ‘A handshake is a sign you are a human being and acknowledges your humanity’. This is what is so important to these people.

“Every time I go into a prison, just seeing the response of the men motivates and inspires me to continue to build relationship, to bring hope as well as reassurance of the inherent dignity of each person,” Mrs Bourke said.

“Most importantly, it is to empower them to have confidence in the goodness within them and to grow in acceptance of that.”

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 throughout Australia.

Anyone interested in taking part in prison ministry should contact their local diocese for more information.