My fingers are aching after playing guitar for Christmas carols all day at Yatala Prison with 5 members of Shine Choir. The choir have been doing this for 10 years, and normally there are more of them. What a remarkable record of service!
It was my first visit to an adult prison (I had a brief visit to Magill 'training centre ie. juvenile detention as it was called, with a bunch of youth workers in the early 1980s). Yes, I've led a very sheltered existence.
Today was a sobering experience that I can't recommend too highly. Prison is more dreadful than most of us can imagine. At the same time, the staff seemed good humoured, the prisoners appreciative of our visit, and they are all real people after all. This wasn't TV - it was more 'normal' in a peculiar kind of way. Which is not to say that it wasnt dreadful. But it wasnt Hollywood. It was more real than that.
The whole security and entry routine creates its own sense of fear in you - being locked inside for a day. No mobile phone. No wallet. Yes, such minor deprivation sounds pathetic! But all of ys ought to have the experience.
It's an old gaol (1841) - stone buildings, small windows, lots of old iron doors and bars, lots of stairs. We visited three blocks (B, E and F, I think) and sang several times in each to people who watched from behind bars a few feet away, but not the maximum security block. Nevertheless its murderers, rapists, thieves, drug dealers, paedophiles, etc, etc. Plenty with low literacy, and of course mental health issues. My overall feeling was fear of these guys. Not surprisingly, you ask yourself "What if I was in there, even for 6 weeks?"
After each round of carols, the women in the choir gave the prisoners packets of biscuits through a small hole in the metal-grid wall. I admire their courage in doing just that. As the guy holding the guitar, I was relieved that I didnt get to do this. On one occasion some guys called me over. "Hey, we wont hurt you!" So I was confronted through a locked metal grill by guys who looked dangerous, 10 times more scary than anyone I've ever met. They asked what else could I play. Stairway to Heaven? I made a pathetic attempt, and soon excused myself to leave with the choir. The prison officer said soon afterwards "Those were some seriously bad dudes in there." This is one of my "very bothered" moments from the visit.
The fact that the choristers were younger women certainly created interest, as did the packets of home made biscuits that the choir had put together. However apart from that many of the guys seemed genuinely appreciative of the visit, and there were some small moments (eg. Silent Night a capella) that seemed special. Apparently, we sang to some rather infamous South Australians (Snowtown...).
Long chats with the chaplain and our 'escort' prison officer were very informative, challenging and disturbing. The latter was a young, cheery guy who had been there for two years and loved his work. His good humour and that of many of the other staff were impressive. Mind you, we didn't see any 'incidents', and we were clearly unwelcome to some.
At each place we handed out carols songsheets, sang a few songs, and then the chaplain gave very brief Christmas wishes and mentioned that god comes close to us at Christmas. I kept thinking, "What would I say?" Anyway, at one point he asked what I did workwise and I told him. A bit later he said "I have to go and get more biscuits. Can you just do my bit?". So I'm immediately terrified. Doing the "Hello" and "What carols would you like to hear?" was easy. But I'm playing the guitar while freaking out internally about what I would actually say to these guys about Christmas in three or four sentences. Thankfully the chaplain returned and saved me. But gosh, my theological world imploded in those few minutes...
Prison is such a dreadful place and existence. Lord, have mercy! I was terribly saddened by the relatively high proportion of aboriginal people, appalled by the overcrowding which is due to state govt budget (no new prisons). So many issues. I have great admiration for those who work and minister in these places, and of course, wonder what someone like me can do to help prison reform. This system is a blight on our society, dehumanising those most in need of humanising, if that makes sense.
And yet there must be grace there somewhere. A great deal to ponder.
And questions from the chaplain. Would any of you be prepared to come and lead worship on a Sunday? Would any of you lead a small group discussion for an Alpha course? Why did he keep looking at me?
So I'm really grateful to the Shine Choir for the privilege, to Chaplain Ian and our escort Tom. If my fingers recover I'd happily go next year.
(BTW only one request for "Jailhouse Rock"!)