God is very close to those who are broken

Katy Canty is retiring from her post as Church of England and Managing Chaplain at HMP Altcourse at the end of November.

We spoke to Katy about her experiences as a prison chaplain and what the ministry is like day to day. The vacancy at HMP Altcourse will be advertised in due course and we will provide all the information you need about how and when to apply.  

How did you know you were called into prison chaplaincy?
I came into prison as a volunteer on a placement for Reader training and was absolutely compelled by the people that I met.  I went in expecting to feel fear but instead was filled with compassion which I felt was very God-given, and I felt this was the place to which God had called me to minister. I went on to be ordained and feel that the priestly presence is so vital amidst the darkness through which we daily walk.

What is the role and the duties of a prison chaplain/what does an average day look like?
There is no such thing as an average day as we are always reacting to situations that arise! We do however have statutory duties each day which include meeting every new arrival into prison (averaging about 15-20 a day), visiting every prisoner in the Healthcare and Care and Separation Units and responding to every request to speak to a Chaplain. We visit every Unit in prison, check on those feeling most vulnerable, and speak generally to both Staff and prisoners. On most days between us we will meet between 60-70 people. We also attend the various meetings concerned with strategy and planning.  We deal a great deal with bereavement and supporting prisoners and Staff through this difficult time.  Obviously we also arrange services and groups, but a lot of our spiritual work is though listening and sitting with individuals where we share the love, compassion and challenge of Jesus.

In an age of secularisation what role does the chaplaincy have to play and how is it received by inmates and staff?
Chaplaincy is well understood and generally respected in prison because although people do not necessarily ‘get’ or ‘do’ religion they appreciate that we are people to whom they can turn and not be judged or criticised. We feel that it is vital to retain a faith presence in prison because often when people are at their lowest and ‘stripped’ of everything they actually reach out to find something beyond themselves – God is very close to those who are broken.

We all have a perception of prison and prison life, what is it really like?
It’s a very challenging environment but in it we also meet individuals who are in broken places, sometimes of their own making, and as they spend time out of society we find in some an openness to change their attitudes and actions.

What’s the most rewarding aspect of your role?
It’s working with individuals and allowing them to share their lives and experiences with us and maybe helping them to look at things in a different way.  We share with them that whilst God does not condemn them as people, he does not condone wrong doing and we try to explore the challenge of changing their life with his strength.

What’s the most challenging?
We often deal with prisoners at very raw times in their lives and spend much time coping with suicide prevention and bereavement issues which can be quite draining.

What are the qualities you need to have to be a successful chaplain?
Above all else a sense of compassion which is God-given because it needs to be more than our human ability.  A Chaplain needs to be strong and resilient and able to react to fast changing situations and demands, and be able to listen non judgementally, but not be afraid to challenge and encourage.  A sense of humour is also useful!

What will you miss?
The Staff at all levels of the prison are amazing as we are bound together in such a ‘peculiar’ environment and work well together.  I will also miss the prisoners as they have taught me so much and challenged my own theology and given me insight into human nature which has deepened my own faith and understanding of God

How do chaplaincies make a bigger difference to prison life?
Chaplaincy is a very established part of prison life and prisoners will come to the Chapel in here – maybe to light a candle when someone dies, who would probably never go to a church on the outside.  We are a presence within the system and I like to think we do touch the lives of all we meet with a reminder that God is in the centre of every circumstance.

What is the future for chaplaincy in prisons?
We are seeing an increasingly multi-faith population in prison both of prisoners and of Chaplains and I think this will become increasingly the case.  We are seen as an integral part of the rehabilitative culture that is being fostered at this time.

What’s next for you?
I am taking a short break but would like to continue to share with others what I have learnt from my prison ‘experience’ as I feel it has something to say to the wider church.  Then we will see where God leads next!

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