US Chesed News

Jewish Prison Chaplaincy Service in 2014
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Wednesday 10th September 2014

Jewish Prison Chaplaincy (which is part of Jewish Visiting and is co-ordinated by the United Synagogue on behalf of the Jewish Community) is a cross-communal service, so we have a range of chaplains, both men and women, from United Synagogue, Liberal, Reform, Masorti, and Charedi communities. Similarly, the prisoners themselves come from a range of communities and there is no such thing as a stereotypical Jewish prisoner. Contrary to public perception, not all Jewish prisoners are there for white collar crime.

We provide Chaplains for prisons throughout England and Wales. There are currently 40 chaplains, whose role is to provide faith and pastoral care to prisoners and to advocate on their behalf.

As this is a national service, it is difficult to for us to arrange training that all our chaplains can attend, however we do ensure that our chaplains are able to get together at least once a year.  This year the training was attended by about half of our chaplains and our keynote speaker was Canon Mike Kavanagh, Head of Chaplaincy and Faith Services at the National Offender Management Service, the government body that deals with the prison service. He gave a fascinating talk on subjects including the role of chaplaincy both in helping prisoners adjust to prison but also to reduce re-offending.

Among the speakers was our own Gill Cashdan, a counsellor who supports both prisoners and their families. The following is an extract from Gill’s presentation at the training session, which brings home just how prison affects not only the prisoner themselves, but also their family.

“Even if you’ve never committed a crime yourself, when someone close to you lands up in jail, it’s like part of you is in there with them”.

“Of course I still love him, but I can’t bear to think about what he did to get that prison sentence”.

“We go and visit as often as we can – but he’s miles and miles away. Half the visit we’re just trying to make some sort of a connection – in a roomful of screaming kids, running up and down.”

“It’s like the whole family shares their shame…and even if we try not to talk about it much, everybody knows.”

“Parents are supposed to set a good example to their children – show them how to be a mensch, so what on earth are they going to think about what he did…?”

“What about when they come out – things can never be the same, can they?”

These are just a few of the things that have been said to me in the past year, since I began offering a counselling service to the families of Jewish men and women currently serving, or who have finished serving, a prison sentence.

During this time I have worked with parents who have an adult child in prison; with the spouses and children of a prisoner; and with some of the prisoners themselves, in particular when from another country and so having no family visits to look forward to and instead worrying about aged parents or troubled children living abroad. 

In my previous roles as a Probation Officer, Guardian ad Litem and Family Mediator I had come to realise how alienating a custodial sentence can be, not only to the prisoners themselves but also to their family. For a spouse, child or parent, after the initial shock, there is often a need to work out how to manage financially, practically and above all emotionally.

The balance of relationships and responsibilities is totally altered, as is life at home and in the community. Families struggle to know what and how much to tell the children or elderly grandparents or whether to pretend the imprisoned family member has simply gone away to work or study.

As time goes on and they do all somehow find a way to manage, people’s strengths may come to light: a wife who was dependent on her husband for an income finds a job she can enjoy, that pays the bills and gives her a sense of confidence in her own abilities. However much she may resent having been put in this position and however tired she may be feeling, if she’s learned to cope alone, she may not relish the idea of giving up her hard-won independence. No wonder so many ‘Dear John’ letters are received by men, shortly before the end of their sentence.

In a nutshell, families separated by prison need to find a way of continuing to have important conversations: these are what help couples maintain a close and confiding relationship and help parents feel they continue to share responsibility for their children together. In addition, children need to have a truthful – and also bearable – explanation for what has happened to in their family.

For if those on the inside and those on the outside remain unaware of how the others are feeling and of what they may be needing, relationships between them are likely to become distorted and, in the worst cases, break down altogether. 

This is where family counselling may be able to help: by listening carefully to what each person involved is thinking, needing and feeling; and by enabling them listen to one another, they are more likely to find a way of building bridges across space and time and, despite the hardships, have a better chance of sustaining their sense of being a family.

If you are the family of a prisoner and you think you would benefit from the support that Gill can offer, then please contact us at Jewish Visiting, c/o the United Synagogue on 020 8343 6238 or you can e-mail us on . Please rest assured that all conversations are held in the strictest confidence.