Touria Prayag's Blog

Weekly editorial (September 6 2012)

Posted in Uncategorized by touriaprayag on September 23, 2012

Managing chaplaincy in prisons

The imam’s alleged involvement in the drug cartel which made the headlines this week is straight out of the “Safe Drug Dealing for Dummies” handbook. Not only is this incident embarrassing for the prison authorities, but it is also a moment of embarrassment for our country as a whole. It is both a reflection on our archaic prison system and lax security and on the way we perceive religion.

Irrespective of which God we pray to, we are far too focused on appearances and mask wearing to worry about the essence of religion. And we are so terribly impressed with people who make such a show of their religion that we place them on a pedestal and credit them with godly qualities which render them in our eyes unable to do any harm. This is not the first lesson that has hit us in the face. We have heard allegations of religious people smuggling drugs inside religious figurines in the past. But we persisted in our denial.

Perhaps it is time we reviewed the system of preaching to and counselling prison inmates of all faiths. Under the current system, religious counsellors are appointed by their religious hierarchy. The ‘position’ is voluntary and unremunerated. The imams who conduct Friday prayers and counselling sessions for Muslim inmates, the chaplains who conduct the Sunday prayers for Christians and the gurus who officiate the poojas for the Hindus sometimes do excellent work in the prison confines but they do so on a grace and favour basis. And that is where the problem lies as there is no accountability.

In the UK, chaplains are officially recognised, appointed by the prison’s service and employed on a fulltime basis in each and every prison. Recently, the 1952 Act was changed to allow for the employment of Muslim imams on a full-time basis. Today in British prisons, there are 56 full-time imams and some 59 part-time ones with an additional pool of over 90 on standby.

The chaplains, imams and rabbis are fully qualifi ed, undertake the same training as all prison staff and, above all, are fully accountable to the prison service. As imams, chaplains, rabbis or gurus, none of them is exempted from routine and unannounced security checks with which they have to fully comply. And, as part of the chaplaincy team, they provide pastoral care for all prisoners, not just for the ones of their faith. Chaplaincy work is fully integrated and not confined to Friday prayers, Sunday Mass or Saturday Sabbath. Above all, they are fully integrated into the system, go through the same recruitment procedures, screening and vetting as all prison officers. They have access to the same specialist training as well and are subject to the same security clearances when appointed and subsequently after.

If other countries can adopt such an integrated approach, why can’t we? The answer is simple: here it is taboo to even begin to subject religious matters to the same rational thinking as you would with other aspects of society. So, the prison authorities are discussing with the Jummah Mosque the next replacement of the previous imam. We will give them our blessing until the next embarrassing incident takes us by surprise. Again.

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