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Interview: Jo Calladine, prison chaplain

15 March 2019

‘There’s a lot of grace in prisons — that’s what surprised me most’

I work at HM Prison Manchester, formerly known as Strangeways. Manchester Prison is part of the High Security Estate; so we house Category A prisoners, and we’re also the local jail for the Manchester courts. That means we hold a huge range of prisoners: men on remand, some serving sentences of a few weeks for petty offences, and some serving life for terrorism or murder.

There are a number of chaplains who work each day, mostly Christian and Muslim. We do have chaplains of other faiths — such as Buddhist, Pagan, Jewish — who come in for a few hours each week to see the prisoners of their faith. We’re trying to recruit a Sikh chaplain at the moment. Whatever faith the chaplain is, it’s important that they have a heart for the men, and can work in the prison environment.

I’m a Christian and an Anglican, but I don’t like labels. People are very complex, and I appreciate any and all traditions. I grew up in a nominal Anglican household, and became a Christian in the Evangelical tradition, but I worked in a liberal Catholic church as a curate, and enjoy retreats in a Jesuit house. Wherever I see anything authentic, whether it’s a formal liturgy, or something praise-y, something quite contemplative, I’m attracted. I love the Rend Collective, a Christian folk-rock band from Northern Ireland — really lively — and tried to introduce some of that to the men.

In the morning, we see any new prisoners who have come in. We ask if they’re OK, if they’ve been in touch with their loved ones, and answer their questions. If they have a faith, we can advise them about how they can practise their faith while in jail. Each day, we visit the men on Healthcare, Inpatients, and the Segregation unit, to check on their welfare. After that, it’s very much responding to the needs of the jail. We support the men who’ve self-harmed; we sometimes break bad news of deaths or terminal illness; we sit and chat to the men who are struggling; we attend meetings with other agencies; and we care for staff, who do a very challenging job.

There are plenty of women who work in the prison, although men are the majority; so I have plenty of interaction with women staff. Being a woman in that environment, I sometimes find myself going into parent mode, because some of the men are young enough to be my sons. But, equally, I can be a little bit tougher than a man would. Maybe I can challenge them and make them think about the way they’re behaving, because I can relate to them like their mum.

For me, prison ministry is about being “as wise as a serpent and as gentle as a dove”. It can be hard to get the balance right between being loving and supportive but also recognising that prisoners can lie and manipulate, and that sometimes my response to a request will be “No”.

Ultimately, it was God who attracted me to prison chaplaincy. I visited HM Prison Risley in 1996, when I was on a placement in a parish in Liverpool. The vicar had a parishioner in the jail; so we went to see him. I was quite nervous beforehand, but when we left I was buzzing. My friend refers to these moments as “ding” moments, when something inside you rings clear and true.

What’s satisfying is that I’m where God’s called me to be; so I feel a great sense of peace. If God called me back into a parish, then I’d go, and I’m sure I’d feel just as contented, because I’d be where God had called me to be.

I do miss being part of a church community, at times. We have a high turnover of prisoners, and we rarely get a consistent group each Sunday; so I miss being part of the family of the church. But my husband’s a vicar, I have a spiritual director, and my colleagues are massively supportive, and I have my extended family and good friends. I loved going on retreat to Loyola Hall, in Rainhill, which was a real sanctuary, but, sadly, it closed a few years ago.

The chapel in the prison is lovely, and a real sacred space. I often go there in the middle of the day to regroup and to put my focus back on God.

My husband’s church is very supportive to prisoners, and the Bishop of Manchester and one of the assistant bishops really encourage the diocese to be so. We can’t usually support offenders as they move back into the community, because many of them are here on very short-term sentences, and the majority are received here from the courts and then sent to another long-term jail.

“P” became a Christian 20 years ago, but then he became addicted to drugs and fell away from his faith. I got to know him in jail, and we spoke a lot of God’s forgiveness and love. He came to chapel a few times, and then stopped because he just couldn’t believe that God would have him back. He then transferred to another jail. He wrote to me a few months ago, and spoke of a profound encounter he’d had with God. The chaplain there told me that he’s now a regular at chapel and Bible study, and a real asset to the Chaplaincy.

There’s a lot of grace in prisons — that’s what surprised me most. Prisoners can show great kindness and empathy towards each other, and staff often go the extra mile to help prisoners in need.

The media’s image of British prisons as being overcrowded and struggling to maintain control is largely right. When funding is cut, staff numbers depleted, and yet prisons remain overcrowded, then prisons become about crowd-control and crisis-management. If prisons are going to be truly rehabilitative, then they have to be given the resources.

If I could change one thing, I’d put more funding into early intervention and prevention initiatives, like the charity Home-Start (I’m the chair of the Manchester scheme). I have a husband and a huge amount of support, but being a parent is still a struggle — how much more if you’re on your own, and perhaps having health or mental problems, housing, work, or financial stress? Home-Start doesn’t judge people but gets alongside them, and families are open to it because it’s not done by professionals but other parents giving support and modelling how to be a good parent.

Most people want to be good parents, but some are just struggling, or never had helpful things such as bedtime routines or play with their own parents; so they just don’t know how to do it. Men who’ve been in care, or had abusive backgrounds, maybe wouldn’t be in prison, and their victims wouldn’t be suffering in the way that they are, if they’d had practical family support.

The thought of children being poorly treated, and not being given what should be an absolute fundamental — a stable and loving childhood — makes me angry. And Brexit.

Being with my family makes me happiest. I love spending time with my husband and children, walking our dog, reading, going to the theatre, sharing a bottle of wine with friends, working out, and doing yoga.

The sound of my kids coming home is the best.

The most courageous thing I ever did was telling a lovely man at college that I was attracted to him. If I hadn’t, my life would look very different today.

I see a lot of goodness, kindness, and bravery in the world. The media seem to think the only news worth reporting is bad news. We could fill our newspapers a hundred times over with stories of ordinary, everyday kindness.

The prayer of my heart is: “Grant, O Lord, that none may love thee less this day because of me; that no word or act of mine may turn one soul from thee; and, ever daring, yet one other grace I would implore, that many souls this day, because of me, may love thee more.”

I’d like to be locked in a church with Gerard Hughes, the author of my favourite book, God of Surprises. He led a retreat when I was a curate, and the words he spoke and wrote have had a huge impact on me.

The Revd Jo Calladine was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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