CHURCH IN ACTION
Holloway chaplain Sr Mary Galvin tells Murray White about a more humane treatment of prisoners.
A SUNNY day at Holloway, the largest women's prison in Britain. and a good number of the 480 inmates are playing rounders on the grassed courtyard.
Competitive shouts fill the air of the I8-year-old London prison. But the mood is one of friendly relaxation, of basking in the first hot days of spring. It is not quite what you expect on the inside.
In the immaculately-kept chaplaincy next to the courtyard, the full-time Catholic chaplain casts an eye over a group of volunteers rearranging the chairs in one chapel for a play due to be performed by and for inmates that afternoon. Sr Mary Galvin is looking forward to the show, but says she will spend most of the performance making sure there is no vandalism in the chaplaincy rooms. "Some of the women have no respect for property," she reveals.
Outside. Sr Mary mixes easily among the surprisingly young women, chatting to one about a phone call to a relative. Another of the inmates. Grace, tells me that Sr Mary, who dresses in "civvies", is very approachable for a nun. But she is no pushover.
In her office. the member of the Faithful Companions of Jesus order explains the unique middle ground she has occupied in her three years at Holloway. On one hand, she is removed from the
formality of authority, on the other, she has the freedom to work daily with the prisoners. "It is easier to build up trust. But at the same time I do challenge them. We're no good to them if we just raise false truths or go along with their fantasies of life."
As part of an ecumenical team including two other part-time Catholic chaplains. Sr Mary's brief is to be a pastoral presence to the quarter of Holloway's population that is Catholic. But the reality goes a lot deeper. She could be counselling one hour, at a meeting discussing prisoners' welfare the next. Dealing with all from drug offenders to murderers,
Sr Mary takes very much the liberal line adopted at Holloway three years ago, even in the notoriously difficult psychiatric wing. She prefers not to talk about prisoners individually, but the word in Holloway is that a more harsh approach of previous chaplains may have alienated its best-known prisoner Judith Ward released this week after her case was heard by the Appeal Court.
An unsympathetic public perception which views prisons in black and white makes the task of its chaplain all the more difficult. It hurts St Mary to hear people think she has "gone soft" because she gives so much time to women
who have committed sometimes awful crimes. But she counters: "A woman is in for what she has done that is the punishment. It shouldn't be the system that adds to the punishment like in the inflexible male system. We all need a chance to start again."
At least for women, the system seems to be more caring today there is more freedom to walk around Holloway, to watch television, to learn new skills and gain qualifications.
But does it work? Self mutilation and staff assaults have decreased since the regime relaxed. Against that, almost half of the women re-offend, many of them drug or alcohol dependent or with mental illnesses.
Automatically returning the ill to prison hospitals is not a solution, Sr Mary argues.
"I think the law should change, so they go straight to rehabilitation centres or hospitals." an idea she recognises would need more money. Greater use of non-custodial sentences, such as compulsory attendance at educational classes, could also help. The disruption to children, a major worry of mothers in prison, would thus be minimised.
Outside services (attendance around 60), Sr Mary does occasionally get flak from some inmates for being part of a "hypocritical" Church.
"In a sense, none of us is worthy to go before God," is her explanation. "But, we are told that the worse sinners we are, the more God loves us and welcomes us."
Then, with a glint in her eye, she tells them: "So, you are very privileged if you've committed a bad crime!"