Window into the life of prison chaplain Jo Vandersee

It was Anglican Bishop Greg Anderson who first planted the seed in my mind when I came to the Northern Territory in 2021. He said there had been talk over the years about appointing a female prison chaplain.

In 2023 I started volunteering with the monthly Anglican church service in the women’s section at the Darwin Correctional Centre. I won’t lie, I had fears about going “inside”. Other church groups offer services on weekends, so there were lots of wonderful volunteers already at work.

At the start of this year I was engaged as one of two part-time prison chaplains. I suppose it could be said that seed planted three years ago, is well and truly sprouting! For two days a week I go into Darwin Correctional Centre and offer Bible studies, church services and opportunities for prayer and reflection. Chaplains – paid and volunteer – see prisoners who request chaplain’s services, or want a Bible, or other religious support.

About the prisoners

Women make up a quarter of the people in prison in the NT and 95% identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. Traditionally Aboriginal women will not talk with a male about their problems or their spirituality, so until my appointment, women were generally depending on the female volunteers who run Bible studies and other groups in the female sector.

In the short time I’ve been working at the prison I’m amazed in the interest from prisoners to meet with a chaplain, go to religious services, have someone to listen to their concerns and to support them in personal growth and change. All chaplains see both male and female prisoners, and I lead a Bible study each week in one of the lower security male sectors.

Being able to remind people they are valued and valuable, and that there is hope for the future is a joy for me. Being able to say a kind word to the prison staff now and then, as they have a very difficult and thankless job, is also a part of my care for all.

How does it work on the inside?

As you can imagine, movement inside the prison is restricted, and I spend a decent amount of time waiting for gates to be unlocked and locked again. The prison staff chaperone me around some of the time, and I’m grateful for their support and advice.

It has been confronting for me to see people locked up, and I struggle with the clanging sounds as gates are constantly unlocked and locked. That said, I believe the expression of people’s human rights to practice their religion or faith gives them hope in their situation.

There isn’t a normal day for me, every time I go to the prison is a different experience. What I am quickly learning, is that prisons are unpredictable places and keeping expectations realistic about what I can achieve is helpful.

A chance for kindness and compassion

Chaplaincy is a service alongside the psychology and social work endeavours to assist prisoners. Being a chaplain is providing pastoral care – human care and kindness – to all who I come across. Prisoners are firstly human beings who are worthy of dignity, care and opportunities to change and grow.

My faith in the goodness of God keeps me grounded in care and genuine regard for others, no matter what they have done or what they are facing in life.  It seems like a very small gesture to listen and be a caring presence, yet this is foundational for anyone who is in difficulty.

Prisoners can follow religious studies courses and chaplains manage the administration of that, through documenting their progress and delivering the materials once they come through the prison checking system.

Thankfully, teams of volunteers from a variety of Christian and other faiths are available to run groups and services that prisoners request and attend. Anglicare NT facilitates the screening of volunteers who have a major role in assisting chaplains. Without the support of Anglicare NT and the volunteers prison chaplaincy services would not be able to continue.