Cardiff prison chaplain on ‘serving on the margins’
The Reverend Mark John, co-ordinating chaplain at Cardiff prison for 15 years, will take up a new role next year managing all chaplaincies in the public sector prisons of Wales. He talks to Selma Chalabi of the BBC’s Eye on Wales current affairs programme about his work and what drives him.
Why do you do what you do?
“As a Christian I have always wanted to serve on the margins. Serving in prisons seemed an obvious way to do that. One of the most fulfilling parts of the job is honesty. Prisoners quite often present with honesty. Because the veneers that we put on ourselves are no longer there, you can see the need and minister to it. When I was a vicar, that emotional honesty wasn’t there. Who goes to the vicar and says I’m an alcoholic can you help me? Rarely. In prison, I can talk men openly about their problems.
“Every morning I wake up and think that I’m doing something that I’m comfortable with. I’m doing the best I can in an environment that I love.”
“Yes, perversely. Prisons are horrible. Putting people in custody is horrible. It’s society’s answer. If you ask me if prison works, I would say no it doesn’t. But within that cesspit that we’ve created there is a need. As a prison chaplain, I’m there to address that need.
“If I were to come to you and say, I’m a murderer, what does God think of me? What would you say?
“I would say you’re not beyond God. They were brigands who were crucified next to Jesus Christ. They were condemned men. I would say to you, he loves you, and you will be there.
“During my prison ministry I have worked with many murderers. I’ve worked with some who’ve come to a Christian faith and to a spiritual realisation. Only a very few cold people can be murderers and feel no remorse. The majority have a sense of remorse and guilt. As a prison service, we are always looking in to their attitude towards their offence. I want to know their attitude and what strategies they have in place to stop them from doing it again.”
Who are you commissioned by – God or the state?
“I definitely believe that my vocation comes from God. God called me to be a priest, and then God called me to be a prison chaplain. With that vocation to ministry, the authority comes from the bishop of this diocese.
“I’m also paid for by the state. There’s an act of parliament that says that every prison must have a chaplain, so the state actually empowers it. In fact the act says every prison must have a governor, a chaplain and other such staff.
“That’s one of the things I like about our state. There’s a balance. There’s an acceptance that the state has a right to punish, but there’s an acceptance that the state has a right to nurture and care.”
What would you say to people who say that prison is a place of punishment, and punishment alone?
“As far as I’m aware, in law, prison has been defined as the punishment. You are in custody. Your liberty is curtailed. That is the punishment. Anything after that is cruel and inhumane.
“Our society, a progressive western society, has said that we keep people who don’t conform to the norms of society in a place of security to keep society safe from them. That is the punishment.
“The punishment then comes home when their daughter dies and they can’t go and comfort their wife, when their mum dies and they can’t leave the prison because that’s not allowed. That’s the punishment.”
What is your team made up of?
“When I first started work in prisons, the perception was that prison chaplaincy was largely a Christian ministry.
“It’s now become an all faith ministry. We have 20 chaplains of different denominations. 3.5 are fully paid chaplains. Some are sub-contracted or sessional chaplains, and a whole variety of others.
“We cater for the main Christian faiths. We have Muslim chaplains, Buddhist chaplains, a pagan chaplain, Jewish, Sikh chaplains, Jehovah’s Witness and Mormon. Basically if a prisoner comes in and says I have a certain faith, it is my job to ensure that we have a minister of that faith for them.”
Are you worth the public money that pays for you?
“I could point to you four or five people that as a direct result of something I’ve done or said are no longer in the criminal justice system.
“We are told that to keep a prisoner in Cardiff costs £30,000 or £40,000 a year, and to put them through the whole process can cost hundreds of thousands. So actually if I’ve got four that I’ve sorted out, that’s paid my wages for my career. So is it worth it? Value for money? Yes. Hopefully it’s a bit more than that.”