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Seeing beyond the walls

Hannah Kennelly  |  17 February 2021

Anchored in compassion and mercy, prison chaplains provide essential pastoral care to incarcerated men, women and children.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics there are currently 41,060 people in prisons across Australia. Catholic organisations such as Centacare and CatholicCare provide prison chaplaincy services to correctional facilities.

Loreto Sister Elizabeth Keane is a Centacare Brisbane pastoral ministry chaplain who has worked with women at Numinbah Correctional Centre for more than 20 years.

‘I arrived in the Gold Coast in 2000 after returning overseas from studying teaching. I knew I wanted to work with disadvantaged and vulnerable members of my parish community and I was immediately drawn to prison ministry’, says Sr Elizabeth.

More than 120 women are serving sentences at Numinbah Correctional Centre. Despite the challenges the job presents, Sr Elizabeth has never once doubted her career path.

‘We are providing accompaniment and spiritual support for women in their most vulnerable positions’, she says. ‘I know how much it means to them to have someone to trust.’

Sr Elizabeth says that the perception of people in prison is warped by misconceptions, resentment and ignorance. ‘Until you have walked in someone else’s shoes you cannot judge them’, she says.

‘For many women in prison, their lives have been characterised by mental illness, domestic violence and substance abuse. They have been plagued by intergenerational crime and raised in environments where misconduct and illegal activity are near impossible to escape. 

‘These women have never had any figure in their life they could trust and rely on. To gain their trust and bear witness to their incredible stories is the most rewarding part of my job.’

CatholicCare chaplain Melanie Edwards works at Parkville Youth Justice Centre in Melbourne, where she provides pastoral care for young people awaiting their trial or sentencing.

Melanie was drawn to prison chaplaincy after completing volunteer work in youth justice and discovering a passion for disadvantaged youth who are ‘so much more than the crime they have been accused of’.

At Parkville Youth Justice Centre, Melanie runs church services, activities and spirituality workgroups to initiate group or individual discussions.

‘Many young people, especially young men, are reluctant to speak to you’, says Melanie.

‘I have found that playing cards or playing basketball with them are doorways to conversations.

‘It’s a real privilege to work with these young people and witness their journey when they begin to share their story.’

In her work in Numinbah, Sr Elizabeth also uses activities to prompt conversations about reconciliation and the guilt people carry from their past. 

‘During one activity,  I present the women with a blank sheet a paper with a single tiny dot on it. When I ask the women to describe the paper they only mention the mark.

‘But why? The dot is tiny in relation to the huge blank piece of paper. That’s because all these women see is their guilt.

‘I am not excusing their crimes, but these women cannot change the past and as long as they have to carry their guilt on a chain around their neck, it will suffocate any future they could have.’

One of the most significant roles in prison chaplaincy is to assist inmates in their rehabilitation into society. Sr Elizabeth admits this reintegration process is the most challenging part of her work, as prisons can be  ‘a brutal revolving door’.

‘Despite our efforts we cannot always help everyone, and some women will end up returning to prison upon release’, she admits. ‘For many women,  prison is the only place where food, a bed, medication, company and their safety are guaranteed.’

Melanie recognises this cycle in youth justice, as many young people reoffend once they return to their family or environment.

‘I spoke with a young person whose introduction to crime was assisting his father in armed robbery at service stations when he was 13’, she says.

According to youth justice chaplain Jule Harris, the general public could extend a greater sense of ‘compassion and context’ towards young offenders. With more than 25 years of experience in mental health, Jule works to provide emotional and spiritual support for young people in custody at Malmsbury Youth Justice Centre

‘The community is typically unaware of the situations many young people find themselves in. They come from backgrounds consumed by parental neglect, substance abuse, poverty and violence’, says Jule.

‘All these young people need is someone who believes in them.’


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