Prison Chaplain - Mother Susie Simpson

There are 3 prisons on the Cookham Wood site in Rochester: Her Majesty’s Young Offenders Institution (HMYOI) Rochester, which takes male inmates between the ages of 18 and 21, HMYOI Cookham Wood, for young men aged between 15 and 18 and Medway Secure Training Centre which is run by the Health Authority for male and female offenders under 15.

The approach to the prisons is routed through a housing estate and a steady stream of taxis ferries visitors to and fro throughout the day. Once visitors leave the houses and trees behind, the austere Victorian prison complex is immediately apparent. Built to be intimidating, the bleak complex carries an air of foreboding.  Adjacent to the original brick built walls, the newer steel security fences are equally grim and each is topped with the same lethal rolls of razor wire.  It is just possible to see the red brick chapel clock tower from outside: the hands are stuck at 1715.  It’s entirely possible to imagine that for those incarcerated here, time stands still.  As the outside world embraces social networking sites and ever-faster broadband speeds, inmates are denied access to rapidly changing technologies which will arguably make their re-integration into the world of work that much harder. 

Visitors are warned that attempts to assist prisoners escape carry a custodial sentence of 10 years and there are harsh penalties for those endeavouring to smuggle proscribed items into the prison.   Visitors are frisked on arrival to ensure security protocol is adhered to.   

Married to Paul, Prison Chaplain Mother Susie Simpson has three adult children and was ordained in 1999.  She said, “To work as a chaplain in prison is a second calling – during my ordination training I felt called to work in prisons. The joy of being a priest in a prison is that you can bless the prisoners and pray for them every day.  Christianity is such good news for prisoners!”   

One of Mother Susie’s responsibilities is to run the multi-faith group. She said, “It’s a really good group to run. We look at the Bible and the Koran and compare the Scriptures. I never feel intimidated by the group, I’m not a threat to them and I’m not seen as part of the establishment.  I sometimes think I’m a fool for Christ - I assume that God is looking after me.  I think a great privilege here is the status of the Priest. It must have been like this hundreds of years ago – I am treated with great respect. I’m not here to punish them.  I’m not a friend either though, and I have to remind everyone that I am doing my professional work.” 

Describing a normal day, Mother Susie said, “Breakfast ‘grab bags’ are issued the night before, so the lads eat them when they want.  There is no toast available because they can’t have toasters in the cells. The prison day is structured, as you would expect. At 0830, the cells are unlocked and the lads can move on to activities at 0845.  Some will choose to come to chapel and take part in Bible study. Any new inmates must see a chaplain within 24 hours of admission and some of my working day is taken up meeting them. At lunch-time, the prisoners have a ‘grab bag’ containing a baguette, piece of fruit and chocolate. At 1345, there are more activities including coming back to chapel, exercise or paid work. They package headphones into bags or line polystyrene trays with bubble wrap ready for soft fruit packaging. Their pay is nominal, but they can buy extra snacks with the monies they earn. In the evenings, the lads can play pool or table tennis and make 15 minute phone calls.  It’s much harder than it sounds. The prison is constantly noisy, with people shouting, doors slamming, keys rattling and the ‘clunk’ of a lock ramming home. There’s a lot of emotion in the noise here! There’s no real privacy and most of my cell visits are done from the outside. I don’t always recognise the full face of the person I’ve been speaking to, because I can only see a small rectangle of their face when we speak! Cells are locked again for the night at 2000.” 

“We have one full-time Anglican Chaplain here, with one Muslim Imam, two part-time Catholic priests and, in support, there is the Salvation Army, the Pentecostals and provision is made for Jews, Hindus and Sikhs. Catering here can include Halal and Kosher foods. We offer plenty of spiritual support but the real challenge comes when inmates have done their time and they leave prison. Ideally, community chaplains can meet this need, but sometimes, ex-prisoners don’t know where to go, so they lose contact with the Church.  I encourage them to find a priest because the Christian community can take the place of the gang culture that some of them have come from. They are looking for a group to belong to and Christians can offer this.”

The prison is a hostile environment without creature comforts, even thought the punishment is being deprived of liberty. It’s really unpleasant to be ‘banged up’ away from your family. The emphasis here is on training and education. Even outside, between wings, the high steel fences and locked gates makes it impossible to forget where you are. Mother Susie said, “The most challenging part of my job is supporting the bereaved. Unless they are grieving for a parent, they will not be allowed to attend the funeral. It’s especially hard on some of the lads because they have been raised by their grandparents. If they lose a member of the family whilst they are in here, they never have the opportunity to make amends and make that person proud of them. It is also especially challenging to help the suicidal and the self-harming.”

Sunday worship is especially significant. It’s ecumenical by design. The prison chapel is on the top floor of the original chapel building, and it houses an altar, organ, drum kit and chairs. It’s surprisingly homely. Mother Susie said, “Sunday starts with a Catholic Mass and is followed by a joint service for Anglicans and Pentecostals. The lads like having visiting speakers because it is interesting for them. They make prayer requests often for family or early release. They really value being blessed and, during the Eucharist, it is completely silent. Some lads are so shy that they won’t sing, but this way they could take part in a service once they leave here and understand the structure of it. The two favourite hymns are definitely, ‘Cast your burdens’ and ‘My Jesus, my saviour.’ 

This is obviously a role which Mother Susie relishes. She said, "The Pentecostal groups have real heart for ministry but the lads would benefit from more visitors of all faiths.”

Prison chaplains are employed by the prison, and all prisons must have a chaplain in accordance with UK law. 

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