Pain, brokenness and working at HMP Brixton

Published on 03 Jan 2014
Bats on a window

In the Gospels Jesus embraces the most broken of his society and encourages us to do likewise. It is from this motivation that for two days a week I work as a Catholic Chaplain to HMP Brixton, a prison in South London. Brixton Prison has for a long time been a remand prison but was recently re-categorised to a category C local prison. This allows us to build long-lasting relations with the prisoners as it ensures that they are around for a longer time compared to the regime in a remand prison.

My main work is to accompany and minister to those prisoners who are finding life in prison difficult either due to depression, bereavement or issues related to suicide. When an inmate presents with any of these issues the chaplaincy is there to encourage the spirit of the individual allowing them to transcend their situation either through their religious faith if they’re comfortable with that language or simply through a human encounter. We have a particularly important role in the CSU -the segregation unit where prisoners who have misbehaved are confined. These guys are particularly vulnerable as there are no distractions from ordinary prison life. This, in a sense, is solitary confinement where the prisoner has days, weeks or often months to reflect in the long hours of the day on their lives. Evidently the pointlessness and lack of meaning in one’s life can become particularly acute in these circumstances; therefore a friendly ear is often a good remedy for a troubled mind. It is in this situation that I have some of my more intense encounters, encouraging the individual to transcend what can seem an incredibly dark and meaningless situation.

On a Friday morning the Chaplaincy runs a ‘Bible Drama’ for up to 20 prisoners that’s facilitated by Deacon Joseph Coté who I work alongside. It is a fantastic opportunity for the guys to learn about the Christian faith as well as have a good laugh acting. It can often be a welcome break from an often stressful life on the wings. This is certainly unique and dynamic and it encourages us to get to know the guys and build relationships with them beyond a more official relationship. It can sometimes be challenging by virtue of having up to 20 prisoners in one room, nevertheless we always have a lively and enjoyable time together.

In the last year I have been attempting to introduce different initiatives that reflect my Ignatian and Jesuit tradition. So at the moment I have an Ignatian prayer group that runs on one of the wings on a Thursday evening, we very simply reflect on scripture and share how our week has been, it is a simple yet powerful means for us to build relationships and joy in what can often be a harsh environment. I have also developed a mentoring scheme that encourages prisoners to build relationships of trust and responsibility in an Ignatian way; this uses spiritual conversations and imaginative contemplation.

Prison ministry can often be an incredibly challenging apostolate where you are faced continuously with the pain and brokenness of individuals who are often victims themselves. The Chaplain is there to listen to this brokenness and offer a warm embrace and ultimately to communicate a loving God to the inmate. Emotions are at a constant high but the presence of God is often so tangible in this very severe environment. 

Photo credit: