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Sharon Carr Interviews One Of Our Women Prison Visitors

The United Synagogue provides a Jewish Prison Chaplaincy/Visitor service led and coordinated by Rev Michael Binstock who is the Faith Advisor to H M Prison Service.  The following interview took place with one of the women prison visitors. Her anonymity for this article has been respected.

Q

How long have you been doing this work and what got you interested?

A

I have been a prison visitor for about eight years.  I help at the JAMI (Jewish Association for Mental Illness) day centre once a week and decided that I could do something else on another free day.  I had heard about prison chaplaincy from someone who had been visiting for some years.  It sounded interesting, something I would like to do.  So I applied.

 

Q

What sort of places do you visit and how often?

A

I have been allocated different types of prison e.g. open, closed, immigration removal centre and young offenders’.  I visit male and female offenders.  I visit once a week or every other week.  It depends what the offender would like or needs.  There are 200 Jewish male prisoners and 10 female in a total prison population of nearly 100,000.

 

Q

Why would someone request a Jewish visitor specifically?

A

When they come to prison they often find comfort in identifying with their Jewish roots, even if they have not been brought up Jewish.  If they have no Jewish knowledge I teach them the basics of the Faith from an orthodox view, but also tell them about other practice such as Liberal and Reform.  We discuss the Sedra of the week and as the Hagim come round we learn about them and about family and community life and they sample festival foods.  Many prisoners get no visits at all and just like having a visit.  Some prisoners just want to talk and be listened to.   I arrange for Yahrzeits to be observed and kosher food, if it is requested.  It is not appropriate for me to see very orthodox male prisoners and in that case I request a Rabbi or orthodox chaplain to visit

 

Q

Are the people you see always Jewish?

A

Not all are halachically Jewish.  Many have a Jewish father and I would definitely not discriminate and would visit.  Some non-Jews, eg Muslims or Christians, want to learn about Judaism and I would teach them the basics and have discussion with them. Others say they want to convert after prison.

 

Q

Have you had any training for this?

A

There are some training days run by the US and by the prison.  I have had a lot of training working with needy people at JAMI.

 

Q

Tell us a little about life in prison and afterwards.

A

Every prison has a chaplaincy department and all the major religions are represented (if there are significant numbers of that religion in prison).  The chaplains in the prison departments are very helpful to me and I have always had a good relationship with them.  The prisons offer a variety of courses and basic education to help prisoners when they are released.  Anything from bricklaying to accountancy!  Many prisons have good rehab for drug addiction and some prisoners have told me that prison has saved their lives.  After prison it is not so good.  There is probation, which is overloaded, and sometimes prisoners don’t get the care they need. Sometimes they are released into hostel accommodation, which can be lonely, and they may be tempted back to the lives they had before.  But often communities will welcome back their own and that is good.  The prison has an employment department and there are companies who will give ex-offenders a chance.

 

Q

How do you feel after you’ve been to a session with a prisoner?

A

Often sad but often hopeful!

 

Sharon Carr

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