Unheard voices: Reflections of a prison chaplain

August 3, 2021 in Books, Featured News, News

Unheard Voices: Reflections of a Prison Chaplain (Messenger Publications) » provides readers with a brief human insight into life behind bars in penal institutions. Sr Imelda Wickham PBVM challenges the use of prisons to deal with addictions, mental health issues and homelessness, arguing that true justice lies in healing for all involved in criminal behaviour, including victim, perpetrator and society. Her reflections on prisoners’ stories also paints a picture of what life can be like in a prison cell.

In his foreword to the book, Fr Peter McVerry SJ states:

“Prison chaplains have an independence that allows them to speak the truth as they see it. Imelda has always used this independence to give prisoners a voice and this is what kept her working in a system which left her deeply troubled and still does.

Imelda knows intimately the routine and language of prison life and her love of the ‘wit and banter’ within the prison walls is palpable and makes this book an enjoyable read.

Her years working in the prison system have taught her that there must be another way: a better way of working not only with offenders but their families, their victims and the victims’ families.”

The book is split into two parts. Part One combines Sr Imelda’s personal vocation and journey as a Presentation Sister with her calling to prison chaplaincy. It shows how these two became one as she moved among the incarcerated and shared their lives and journeys. In Part Two, she offers a series of reflections on what life can be like for people in prison.

Chapter two, for instance, deals with Sr Imelda’s introduction to prison which included her surprise at the men’s real empathy and concern when she had to break devastatingly sad news to a prisoner. She writes:

“While I would be carrying out that hard task, the men on the landing would keep at a good distance to give us space and privacy. After I had left, they would slowly move into the cell. They would offer to make a cuppa and share a few roll ups with the bereaved. They would also offer their own experiences of grief.”

Chapter six reveals how prison changed her life and perceptions. She writes:

“If treatment centres were provided for those suffering from addictions, whether the addiction be drugs, drink, sex or gambling, our prison population would fall, and our prisons would then be enabled to deal appropriately with those convicted of criminality.”

Sr Imelda steps into the shoes of a man in prison during her reflection, ‘I was sick and you visited me’. She writes:

“He lies handcuffed in the hospital bed. He understands why, but his mother doesn’t. Her heart aches… His sister has learned to say nothing until her mother is herself again… The combined and unspoken feelings of mother and son intermingle, and the emotional distance deepens.”

In her reflection on ‘the happiest man in the world’, she imagines the great struggle to feel loved. She writes:

“Everybody loves him, but he doesn’t love himself… It is just the pain that he is carrying. There is no respite from it… Healing comes from an encounter where grace is offered and embraced. He feels a surge of love and of being loved.”

In her conclusion to the book, the author explains her reasons for taking the next step toward devoting her energy in helping the families of people in prison. Read Sr Imelda’s book in full.

Imelda Wickham is a Presentation Sister and a former provincial of the congregation. She was a prison chaplain for twenty years and held the role of National Coordinator of Prison Chaplains for three years. She is currently involved in establishing a support service for the families of people in prison called New Directions – Supporting Families of People in Prison.

Unheard Voices: Reflections of a Prison Chaplain » by Imelda Wickham PBVM, with a foreword by Peter McVerry SJ is published in Ireland and the UK by Messenger Publications. Priced at €12.95/£11.95.