PRISON can be a lonely and desperate place but the work of chaplains can be a comforting presence to those seeking to change their lives.
After retiring from her job as a teacher, lifelong Stroud resident Mary Brown found a new lease of life visiting inmates as a Quaker prison chaplain.
Now Mary, of Horns Road, Stroud – who spent 10 days in custody as a CND protestor in 1960 – has written a book about her experiences which she hopes will educate people about the realities of prison life.
“I want to publicise everything that is good and bad about the prison system,” said Mary, 77, a columnist for the Guardian newspaper, who served as a chaplain from 2000 until 2012.
The book, titled Confessions of a Prison Chaplain, is released tomorrow, Thursday, and covers topics such as forgiveness, Christmas in prison and learning behind bars, making a compelling read for people of all beliefs.
Prison chaplains run week-ly sessions which offer inmates a chance to escape their cells and consider their lives through the context of religion. Prisoners often react positively at the chance to open up to spirituality.
Mary, who previously taught in a prison, was inspired to write the book after leading weekly silent meditation and reflection meetings which really connected with the prisoners she visited.
“We weren’t sure how the meetings would be received but they loved them,” she said. “Prison can be such a noisy place and people really appreciated the silence.
“We had copies of the Bible to read and I think the sessions really got through to people.”
By not disclosing the prison in which she was a chaplain, Mary has protected the identities of prisoners which has meant she could give a more honest account of her experiences.
Mary became interested in the way we treat prisoners after spending 10 days in custody 54 years ago after being arrested during a peace protest in Trafalgar Square. As part of a CND anti-nuclear protest, Mary was arrested for refusing to give her name and address to police – a practice encouraged by anti-war group the Committee of 100.
While she should have only spent two nights behind bars, Mary was actually held for more than a week as a magistrate was on holiday.
She described the feeling of being locked up as a “terrible shock” which made her understand the way prisoners have to adjust to prison life.
“For the first time in my life I was behind a door that I couldn’t open,” said Mary, who grew up in Rodborough. “Some of the girls I was in prison with could have been girls I'd been teaching, it really is just pure luck.
“One in three prisoners have been in care at some point and it just goes to show that more needs to be done to help people with their problems, rather than just locking them up.”
Stroud has a strong Quaker tradition and Mary was appointed prison chaplain by the Gloucester Area Quaker committee because of her experience as a prison teacher. Although she had no experience as a chaplain, Mary was put forward to start a new chapter of her life.
Mary said it was a “great compliment” to have another Quaker – Juliet Lyon, CBE, director of the Prison Reform Trust – write an introduction for the book.
Juliet, an expert on prisons, described the book as“engaging and thought provoking.”
Confessions of a Prison Chaplain is £12.99, ISBN 978-1-909976.
It can be purchased at www.watersidepress.com