Prison Chaplains

Hilary Marland 


Today, multi-faith prison chaplains carry out a range of duties and roles within the UK criminal justice system in addition to pastoral care: meeting new prisoners, visiting prisoners who are sick or in segregation, and taking on the difficult task of informing prisoners about the deaths of relatives. ‘The role of the prison chaplain extends far beyond an exclusively faith based remit into the centre of everyday life within the prison community’.[i]

One prison officer observed that the prison chaplain was ‘the ears of the prison… the part of the prison that is more or less purely there to listen to, rather than watch prisoners.’[ii] Within the limitations of the prison system, the chaplaincy forms a humane and safe space, and, as one prisoner observed chaplains ‘can build up a relationship with you that feels more equal; they are there to help’.[iii]

Role, Power and Discipline

Historically, the role of chaplains was equally diverse – and in many ways more powerful. They were well-paid, robust and vocal figures, only exceeded in authority in many prisons by the governor. They visited the sick, prisoners in punishment cells and preached to prisoners about to depart on convict transports, as well as being in charge of prisoners’ schooling. Chaplains often played an important part in managing prisoner aid societies, thus extending their control to discharged prisoners.

Notably, chaplains played a key role in the introduction and shaping of the modern, ‘penitentiary’ prison system and were keen advocates of the separate system of prison discipline in the mid-nineteenth-century.

On the opening of Pentonville Model Prison in 1842, the system of separate confinement was established with the intention of isolating inmates in individual cells for up to 23 hours a day, where they were to reflect on their past sins, repent and reach a state of reform, guided by the cell visitations of the chaplains, and their solitary readings of the Bible and other religious texts. Philip Priestley has encapsulated the tension between the act of faith, for the majority of Victorian prisoners, the Anglican ‘communion’, that was experienced by prisoners as ‘unmistakably disciplinary proceedings’, as they were marched in silence to chapel and seated in separate stalls.[iv]

Some chaplains were extreme in their admonitions and style of preaching and Pentonville’s first chaplain was accused of provoking outbreaks of religious mania amongst the prisoners. Others were fierce disciplinarians, attentive in pointing out misdemeanours in chapel. Though provision was made for Roman Catholic and Jewish prisoners in some late nineteenth century prisons, other religions – and the absence of faith – were not acknowledged.

Cell Interventions

Despite what we might see as a misguided faith in a system of imprisonment which appears designed to produce despair, despondency, isolation and mental breakdown, the chaplains had an unwavering faith in their power to do good, notably in the isolation of the cell, and were the only prison officials permitted to converse freely with a prisoner without the presence of a warder. The chaplains published accounts of successful reformation as a means of justifying the success of both the system and their ministry, also seeing themselves as arbiters of prisoners’ mental wellbeing.

For some prisoners chaplains provided an important point of contact. One sad case of a young Scottish prisoner confined in Pentonville in 1843 shows the potential succour provided by the chaplain, as well as the dreadful impact of the withdrawal of that support. The prisoner ‘from one of the wildest and most remote districts of the Highlands of Scotland’, spoke no English and secluded in his cell was unable to read the books he was supplied with, to understand the regulations, or comprehend the ministrations of the chaplain. He lapsed into deep melancholy and attempted suicide. The prison physician informed the ‘Gaelic minister’ in London of the prisoner’s plight. He quickly attended the prisoner, who was ‘delighted’ at the visit, confessing his crime of ‘lifting’ a cow. The chaplain warned the prisoner of ‘the heinous nature’ of his attempted suicide, and read him the scriptures in his native tongue. The minister, however, was called away from London, and the prisoner ‘relapsed into his previous state of despondency’, and, despite being constantly watched, The Times newspaper reported his death in December of that year.[v]

Prisoner Accounts

Many prisoner authors recounted their encounters with the prison chaplain, and some were full of praise for their efforts. In My Prison Life, Jabez Spencer Balfour commended the chaplains for their commitment, also pointing out that it was the chaplain who was most likely to observe the positive results of the prison system and suggested they be given more authority.[vi]

The anonymous writer of Five Years of Penal Servitude, described Newgate’s chaplain as kind, offering ‘encouraging, really sweet words of comfort’. The chaplain gave advice not only on how to work with oakum, but also how to adjust mentally to the long prison sentence.[vii] Others were more critical, not least Oscar Wilde who described chaplains as ‘entirely useless… well-meaning, but foolish, indeed silly, men’.[viii]

Criticism of the Prison System

It was chaplains, however, who began to produce more critical commentary on the prison system itself, notably Reverend W.D. Morrison, prison chaplain at Wandsworth Prison, who remarked on the increasing number of cases of mental illness in local prisons by the late nineteenth century, a result he argued of the harsh system of prison discipline.[ix]

In 1895 the Gladstone Committee approved measures to bring visiting preachers into prisons to ease the ‘monotony’ for prisoners, while women scripture readers would be appointed in female prisons.[x] As part of the advocacy of a relaxation in the discipline of the prison system in the early twentieth century – not least for its positive impact on the mind – one minister’s evidence urged more provision for creative activity and diversions, more association between prisoners, and wider engagement by prison staff with the ‘reformative side’ of prison work. Considering modern society more broadly, he also pointed to the impact of poverty and hardship: ‘society creates criminals, and needs to repent and reform itself, as well as the prisoners’.[xi]

Image credit: ‘A clergyman visiting a journalist in prison’ by Tom Merry. Credit: Wellcome Collection. 

For a more detail account of Pentonville Prison and the system of separate confinement, see the article by Catherine Cox and Hilary Marland in the Bulletin of the History of Medicine.

[i] Cardiff Centre for Chaplaincy Studies, The Role and Contribution of a Multi-Faith Prison Chaplaincy to the Contemporary Prison Service: Final Report, June 2011, p.9.

[ii] Ibid., p.21.

[iii] Ibid., p.33.

[iv] Philip Priestley, Victorian Prison Lives (London: Pimlico, 1999), pp.91-2.

[v] ‘The Model Prison, Pentonville’, The Times, 13 December 1843.

[vi] Jabez Spencer Balfour, My Prison Life (London: Chapman and Hall, 1907), p.334.

[vii] One Who has Endured it, Five Years of Penal Servitude (London: Richard Bentley & Son, 1878), pp.10, 20.

[viii] R.H. Hart-Davis (ed.), The Letters of Oscar Wilde (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1963), p.338.

[ix] Stephen Hobhouse and A. Fenner Brockway, English Prisons To-day: Being the Report of the Prison System Enquiry Committee (London, New York and Bombay: Longmans, Green and Co., 1922), p.535.

[x] Seán McConville, English Local Prisons 1860-1900 (London and New York: Routledge, 1995), p.662.

[xi] Hobhouse and Brockway, English Prisons, p.609.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s