The Chief Constable and I recently met with South Yorkshire police chaplains and the lead chaplain, the Revd Derek Pamment. Derek is also priest-in-charge of Wadsworth, Loversall and Balby in the Doncaster district. He was appointed in August 2022 and is seeking to increase the number of voluntary chaplains from all faiths and denominations. Two new recruits were male and female Muslims.
I have had an interest in chaplaincy for many years and wrote a chapter on the ‘Place of Chaplaincy in Public Life’ in A Handbook of Chaplaincy Studies (Ashgate, 2015). I made the observation then that in a more secular age, chaplaincy could only be justified, and could only be funded from the public purse, if it fulfilled two conditions.
First, chaplaincy had to add value to the work of an organisation. A British Army General told me on one occasion that after years of not thinking too much about chaplaincy, the armed services quickly realised the value during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. Chaplains accompanied men and women – many of whom were quite young – to the front line. They were on hand to calm nerves, help maintain morale and give comfort and reassurance. This might involve some religious practice or simply conversation. As the General put it, ‘At one time, chaplains would have been an afterthought, now we made sure they were on the second plane out.’ And chaplains were also back home standing with families when they were anxious or distressed. The key was building good, pastoral relationships. In similar fashion, there has been a steady valuing of chaplaincy in many other institutions – from hospitals to prisons to the police.
As well as adding value, chaplaincy also has to follow the British model of chaplaincy, which is to say, chaplains must be willing and able to help people of any faith or of no faith. I call this the British model because it is not the chaplaincy model found universally. In some countries, military chaplains, for example, are paid by their denomination and offer themselves only to those of their church. But in this country, we have evolved a quite different approach. So the police chaplains are available to anyone who turns to them and so public funding of them is justifiable.
The South Yorkshire voluntary police chaplains, ordained and lay, men and women, of all faiths, will gradually increase in number and be available as and when needed – at certain incidents, when officers or their families need support, enabling services and ceremonies. In future they will be wearing distinctive jackets with Police Chaplain on the back.
What I find interesting from a sociological perspective is the way that as society has become less religious, so chaplaincy has become more valued. You could almost say that chaplaincy is the acceptable face of religion in secular Britain.
The vital work of the Independent Custody Visitors
In 2003, the UK became a signatory to a United Nation treaty aimed at ensuring that people who were kept in places of detention were treated decently and not subject to abuse – cruel or degrading treatment. Those places of detention include police custody suites. In 2009, the UK National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) was set up to oversee this.
In order to comply, the protocol arising from the treaty requires that places of detention, where people are deprived of their liberty, should be regularly visited. This is the critical role that our voluntary Independent Custody Visitors (ICVs) play and the national organisation representing custody visitors, the Independent Custody Visitors Association, is a member of the NPM.
Recently our ICVs were thanked for this valuable work and presented with a pin badge in recognition of their role. They are all volunteers, going in pairs on unannounced regular visits to the custody suites at Barnsley police station, Churchfields, Doncaster custody suite at College Road, and the custody suite for Rotherham and Sheffield at Shepcote Lane. They check on how detainees, including females and young people, are being treated.
We have a good number of volunteers – but would like to have more. Volunteers need no qualifications beyond the desire to help and can be male or female and of any age. If you are interested or know someone who might be, let us know. Deborah, in my office, would be pleased to tell you more about the scheme. You will find it a fascinating and worthwhile thing to do.
Prisons: we should all be concerned
In early June, Andrea Albert, President of the Prison Governors’ Association, delivered one of the starkest warnings yet about the overcrowding of our prisons. She warned that unless something were done soon, the day would come when the prisons were literally full to capacity.
As I write this, the prison population is currently about 85,000. The total number of available places is 86,150. In other words, there is already significant overcrowding. Andrea Albert called them ‘warehouses of despair, danger and degradation’. And there is the serious risk that governors could run out of places altogether.
There are those who care little about what goes on in prisons. It is enough for them that people are put away. While I agree that prison has its purposes, we cannot ignore what happens inside them. Apart from the most dangerous of offenders, most prisoners will one day be coming out. We need them to be as prepared as possible for that day, but if there is overcrowding, offenders are likely to be locked up for longer and longer stretches: it is the only way such numbers can be managed. That means an end to many purposeful activities. This is not a good position to be in.
We also need to think about the staff. Their job is not an easy one. All credit to them that they managed to get through the Covid crisis. But now dealing with large numbers of men, confined against their will, in overcrowded conditions, makes it even harder. It is hardly surprising to learn that recruitment of staff, and, more particularly, retention of staff, is becoming more difficult. And we have four prisons in our county, with many staff living locally.
As I write this, the prisons overall are in a relatively stable state but that could quickly change. There are few options. One has to be the early release of some prisoners to ease the pressures. If that is the route chosen there is a prior step that will need to be taken – the preparation of public opinion because at the moment the public is likely to react badly to any such announcement. On the other hand, of course, the public will be outraged if we create the perfect storm of overcrowding over a hot summer.
I was driving along one of our residential streets which had cars parked closely together on both sides. The speed limit was 20mph, though the parking effectively lowered that.
Suddenly, a children’s buggy appeared from behind one of the cars, pushed out into the road a few cars further on from where I was driving. There was a small child in it. The buggy was pulled back out of sight, almost as quickly as it had emerged. Meanwhile, I had braked and slowed. Cautiously I moved forward, and immediately a dog on a lead ran out from the same spot before it too was pulled back. When I drew alongside the place where all this happened, I saw what I assumed was the mother of the child, holding with her left hand the buggy and the dog on the lead. In her right hand, pressed to her face she had a mobile phone and was talking animatedly into it. As I looked towards her, she gave me a cheerful smile as if to say, thank you.
I don’t know what gets taught in baby classes these days, but I would like to think that whoever runs them, or health visitors, can impress on parents the dangers of being in charge of a buggy, a baby and a dog while talking into a mobile phone. It’s not only car drivers who can be distracted by them.