Today (September 25) is Social Justice Sunday, and the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference’s 2011 Social Justice Statement is Building Bridges, Not Walls: Prisons and the justice system. Journalist ROBIN WILLIAMS spoke with Brisbane prison chaplain Josephite Sister Margaret Robertson about the statement
BRISBANE Josephite Sister Margaret Robertson has applauded the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) 2011 Social Justice Statement.
She said the ACBC statement Building Bridges, Not Walls: Prisons and the justice system, delivered to coincide with Social Justice Sunday today (September 25), was extremely well researched and raised issues that needed community-wide discussion.
Sr Robertson, chair of the Queensland Chaplaincy Board and the board’s Catholic representative, is well placed to comment on the statement.
“I’m responsible for the Catholic teams in the (state’s) 14 centres and also I’m responsible for the ecumenical teams with the other six denominations that operate,” she said.
“There are 14 centres throughout Queensland and as the (state board) chair, in this 12 months I will visit all of them.”
Sr Robertson said the ACBC statement raised issues that should be of significant concern to all, particularly when politicians raised law and order issues.
“Although crime rates have remained about the same during the last decade there is now twice as many people in prison,” she said.
“It costs a lot of money to lock someone away and people should be asking their politicians whether they are getting value for their tax dollar and why there are now so many people in prisons.”
Sr Robertson said, as the ACBC stated, “rather than incarcerating more and more vulnerable people, it would be a longer term but less costly option to look at ways to support the more marginalised and include them in the community”.
“There is a large percentage of people in our prisons that have a mental illness and that percentage has increased since the closure of mental health facilities but we find a lot of such prisoners feel it is less scary to be in prison than sleeping on the streets.
“But is prison the most cost effective option and are they getting the support they need?”
Sr Robertson said prison chaplains had for many years echoed the ACBC 2011 statement’s concerns regarding the balance between appropriate punishment and effective rehabilitation of offenders particularly those with short sentences.
“The statistics prove that the punitive nature of our prison system is not working and we have for a long time advocated for a more disciplined approach to certain offences with an emphasis on restorative justice whereby the offender is required to give back to the community rather than be locked up,” she said.
Sr Robertson said chaplains supported the ACBC belief that being tough on crime would be “wasteful, unjust and counter productive without also being tough on factors that contributed to crime”.
“If you don’t address the underlying factors of offences such as drug-related crime a prison sentence isn’t likely to act as a deterrent,” she said.
“Drugs are a problem at all levels of society but if you can afford a good solicitor you are less likely to get a prison sentence, so many of these prisoners are already disadvantaged.”
Sr Robertson said a prison sentence had significant repercussions for offenders and their families, which was where prison chaplains came in.
“We are there six days a week from Monday to Saturday with a service on Sundays and provide pastoral care to all prisoners, so that means being there for all prisoners who want to talk to us, of any faith or no faith,” she said.
“We meet their spiritual needs, but just as importantly, we minister to them in their various everyday relationship with family.
“We also minister to their families, tell them where to network in the community and find services and supports they will need once the prisoner is released.”
Sr Robertson said it was up to the wider community to ensure that families of prisoners were not disadvantaged or marginalised by the prison sentence.
“We have heard of instances where the children of prisoners are bullied at school and it is up to all of us to be aware and watch for that,” she said.
Sr Robertson who began volunteering with prison chaplaincy in the late 1980s said there was always a need for more volunteers even though the ministry was demanding.
“You have to be able to listen and be fairly strong in yourself not to judge some of the things you hear,” she said.
“You also have to be fairly physically fit, there is a lot of walking on concrete floors and standing talking to people – a chaplain walks all day.
“You also have to be able to work in an ecumenical team and follow rules.
“Once you go through those gates there are rules, rules, rules. It is, after all, a punitive environment.”
Sr Robertson said her return to prison ministry followed a six-year break to fulfil a leadership role with the Queensland Josephites.
“I started in about 1989 when I was living with Sr Kath Carroll, who is still a chaplain. She was the first woman chaplain in the male prisons in Queensland and as she moved into that I moved into the (Brisbane) women’s prison,” she said.
“I was chaplain there for 13 years then I went into the role of being provincial for our sisters so I moved out of it for six years.”
Sr Robertson said she returned to the ministry after receiving a call to serve on the Queensland Chaplaincy Board.
“We work with the other denominations and are allocated a day each week, and for the Catholics (working in the Brisbane Women’s centre) that is Wednesday. You minister in a particular centre and are on duty one day a week,” she said. “Arrangements are different in different centres.
“If anyone (in Brisbane archdiocese) is interested in chaplaincy work they need to approach Centacare Brisbane for assessment and training.”