From Armageddon to Babylon : a sociological-religious studies analysis of the decline of the Protestant prison chaplain as an institution with particular reference to the British and New South Wales prisons from the penitentiary to the present time / by Melvyn John Macarthur
Macarthur, Melvyn John
Prisons have been a both a curiosity and an interest of mine at various times in my life. On occasions in my childhood I drove with my parents past the prison at Long Bay, in Sydney, New South Wales. It was a frightening, but fascinating place. My gaze was fixed on the grounds of the prison, both hoping and fearing to sight an escapee. Later, as a tertiary social work student with an interest in the concept of social control, my thoughts were sometimes focused on the prison. However, it was not until the early part of 1993 that I actually entered a prison. I was then in the final year of my ordinand studies. I had elected, in one of the Field Education components of my studies, to spend time in the Chaplaincy Department of the Long Bay prison in Sydney. The experience was a very significant one in that it was to raise difficult, but fascinating questions for me about the role of religion and the clergy in the prison. During my placement at Long Bay I observed much which strongly suggested that religion and the clergy (chaplains) occupy a peripheral place in the prison system. I was also puzzled by the role of the chaplains, and here I refer to the Protestant chaplains, the only chaplains with whom I had contact. From the perspective of one trained in both social work and theology, it seemed to me that the chaplains were performing many of the same tasks, which one would expect to be performed by the prison welfare staff. In fact it was with difficulty that I could identify anything distinctively 'religious' in the role of the chaplain who, it seemed to me, functioned as something of a quasi welfare professional. It was also very apparent to me that the chaplains had a low profile in the prison; at Long Bay even the chaplaincy offices were outside the prison walls. The chaplains were like exiles, an image which stayed with me long after my placement in the prison had ended. These observations presented a stark contrast to the centrality of religion and the chaplain in the penitentiary, the fledgling prison of the nineteenth century. The chapels in the contemporary prisons, some of which I had seen photographs of, were curiosities. The very prominence and size of the chapel in many of the prisons, both in New South Wales and Britain, many of which were built in the nineteenth century, symbolised the decline of religion from its position of centrality. Religion's function in the contemporary operations and theoretical underpinnings of the prison is marginal by comparison with the penitentiary. The prison chapel is now curiously anachronistic, being used extensively for secular purposes, such as the screening of movies, the holding of various meetings, and sometimes for sports. The liturgical and sacramental functions to which the chapels were dedicated are all but absent, at least for the Protestant chaplains.