Richard Smyth's pages from New Humanist, July/August 2011When John Clay entered the Lancashire County House of Correction in Preston in August 1823, he was shocked. “Thieving, gambling, swearing, sparring and smoking were practised with impunity,” Clay’s son Walter noted in a memoir.

Clay – though hardly a sturdy figure – set about putting the place to rights. The Reverend Clay was a believer in the benefits of robust Christian instruction and example. God had arrived in the British prison.

Robert Peel’s Gaols Act of 1823 had, in effect, called into being a new office: that of the modern-day prison chaplain. Until well into the 19th century, as Walter Clay noted, pretty much “any needy priest of damaged character was thought good enough to minister among rogues”.

The 1823 Act changed that, increasing both the pay and the workload of the prison chaplain. Clay worked tirelessly to improve prison conditions (though inevitably his vision of enlightened penology – he was in favour of total separation of prisoners from each other, and of “flog[ging] boys and discharg[ing] them at once, rather than keep them in prison to be trained in crime” – does not quite chime with our 21st-century ideal). But still he felt limited, straitjacketed by the mundanity of his statutory duties.

“These act-of-parliament ministrations,” his son recalled, “did not by any means fulfil his conception of ‘the work of an evangelist’ in prison.”

It’s evident that, in today’s prison sector, “the work of an evangelist” plays second fiddle to the practical work of a decent, compassionate person. Nowhere is this made clearer to me than in the offices of the West Yorkshire Community Chaplaincy Network. Waiting for my interview with Jane Daguerre, the Network’s director, I’m struck by the stolidly down-to-earth nature of the notices tacked to the office corkboard: an ad for Doncaster Rovers’ “Kickstart” scheme; an “Asian Communities Project”; the “Touchstone Community Support Team”; an “Alcohol Support Service”; leaflets for SHAP and Shelter. I could be visiting any urban community centre or inner-city NGO. The WYCCN, here in the shadow of HMP Leeds’ imposing turrets, is clearly doing valuable work – but in what sense is it a chaplaincy?

“That’s something we ask ourselves as well,” Daguerre tells me. The Network originated as an offshoot of the HMP Leeds chaplaincy, which identified a need for a support structure for newly released offenders.

“What we do is give practical support, and we see that that’s a practical application of faith,” Daguerre says. “The people who work here, some of them are people of faith, some are not. It’s definitely not about proselytising, and it’s not necessarily about talking about how faith will help them to not reoffend. It’s much more about giving practical support. You could say that you don’t have to be a person of faith to do that,” she acknowledges. “And you don’t. Really the core of our work is about practical support.”

A similarly pragmatic approach prevails within the prison walls. Rev Michael Kavanagh is emphatic in his rejection of the Christian evangelism so central to John Clay’s mission. “[Proselytising] is absolutely not part of what prison chaplaincy is about,” he claims. Kavanagh is the Anglican adviser to the prison service and a former chaplain at HMP Full Sutton in Yorkshire. He is one of a number of advisers from a range of what now appear to be officially termed “faith traditions” – including Catholicism, Methodism, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, Hinduism, Buddhism and even Mormonism – who direct the chaplaincy under Chaplain General the Venerable William Noblett.

Kavanagh echoes Jane Daguerre’s characterisation of chaplaincy as “a practical application of faith”. “If you look at it from the chaplain’s point of view, the practical support that is given would be inspired by their faith traditions,” Kavanagh explains. “But from the point of view of the prisoner or member of staff receiving it, they would see it as compassionate concern.”

From the point of view of the prison inmate it’s not hard to see the appeal of the chaplain. On a very simple level, the cultural associations of a religion – the familiar words of a sacred text, the heft of religious music – provide a prisoner with a reminder of the world beyond the walls (in his prison memoir Borstal Boy, Brendan Behan emerges from his first RC mass with the feeling that “it was like being led to the warmth of a big turf fire this cold Sunday morning to hear the words of love and consolation”). But then, so too could a taste of Mum’s Sunday dinner, or the roar of a crowd at Anfield – and these are things that prisoners are, to general approval, normally denied.

More profound is the sense of emotional freedom that many associate with the chaplaincy. Paddy Scriven, the director general of the Prison Governors’ Association, observes that the chaplain is “of the prison, but at the same time not of the prison”; the chaplain’s services, Mike Kavanagh says, are “different from what anyone else in the prison would provide”.

Chaplaincy offers something other than locked doors, brick walls, prison food and tedious, torturous routine. The chaplain can’t unlock the prison gates; curiously, for persons of religious conviction, he or she can’t even offer answers. But what a chaplain can provide – curiouser and curiouser – is the liberty to ask questions.

“When a prisoner sees you, one of the things they have freedom to do is talk about the meaning of life,” Kavanagh says. “A chaplain is at least someone who’s thought about ‘what it’s all about’. When a person enters prison, those questions of meaning and purpose become paramount.”

Erwin James served 20 years of a life sentence, and now writes and broadcasts on prison and justice issues. He’s all too familiar with the prisoner’s desperate need for mental freedom and emotional (as well as physical) peace. “A chapel in prison is an oasis of peace,” he tells me. “Because [prisons] are such chaotic places, the chapel is a place where generally nobody wants to do anybody harm – it’s a bit like a truce area. It’s the opportunity to reflect.”

James is not now religious – though he has nothing but praise for the chaplaincy staff he encountered inside; despite, like many long-term prisoners, passing through a “religious phase”, he found during his time in prison that he “preferred philosophy” to religious dogma.

As an atheist and rationalist, I applaud his choice. But then, it seems that, within the cramped confines of prison chaplaincy, there isn’t much room for dogma. I’m not accustomed to associating religion with liberty of thought, but in a world where liberty of every kind is in one way or another constrained and inhibited, religion can be seen in a new light – stripped, it seems, of everything except its humanity. It offers prisoners a way of engaging with the spiritual (defined by AC Grayling as “the complex of their emotions and intellectual attitudes to the world and to others, our sense of belonging to a world, our response to beauty and nature, our need for love”).

As Erwin James discovered, reading – and writing – offers an alternative route to a similar end. The Writers In Prison Network makes the point bluntly in its slogan: “The creative arts are the only legal way to escape.” Novelist and journalist Jane Bidder, until recently a writer in residence at the Buckinghamshire prisons HMP Grendon and HMP Spring Hill, found a keen appetite for emotional expression among the prisoners when she brought together a collection of their prayers – both secular and religious – in The Book of Uncommon Prayer (Bar None Books, 2010).

It’s an eclectic mix. One “prayer” begins: “I have no religion ... no desire to revert to archaic language for effect”; others embody Sikh or Muslim beliefs, or address a “heavenly Father”; one man prays rather chattily for a job as an industrial cleaner in the London Underground. What they collectively make clear is that people in prison share with those outside an instinct (however unfocused or clumsily expressed) to explore and express their inner lives – inner lives that some commentators prefer to believe they do not possess.

“I wanted to help people go from one day to the next,” Bidder explains. “When I put the idea to some of the men in my workshop, I was really surprised how keen they were to do this. I was really worried,” she adds, “that I might be seen as one of these religious fanatics. So I tried to make it clear to people that if they weren’t religious that didn’t matter.”

The chaplaincy approach supported by the Ministry of Justice is similarly (and, in its case, extraordinarily) ecumenical. Within the prison system, chaplains of all faiths attend to prisoners of all faiths or none; while only a Muslim chaplain, say, would be expected to perform Islamic rites or services, day-to-day chaplaincy tasks are often carried out without regard for religious distinctions.

“A lot of the pastoral work that I did as a prison chaplain didn’t touch on the Church of England or Christianity,” Mike Kavanagh recalls. “It touched on ‘what is my life about,’ ‘what are going to be my priorities in future,’ ‘what are the values I want to live by’... and that’s a conversation that actually you can have with any chaplain.” In an ideal world, of course, it would be a conversation you could have with anyone who was thoughtful, humane and willing to listen. Indeed, it’s becoming apparent to me that this is, at bottom, exactly what a chaplain is.

This is where the argument turns hard-headed. There are 258 directly employed chaplains in the UK prison service (the remainder are “sessional” chaplains, who are paid by the hour). A Freedom of Information request last year by a member of the British Humanist Association found that these directly employed chaplains cost the Government around £10.3m a year. Mike Kavanagh explains to me that these chaplains “tend to be those who are [of] the numerically larger group” – which means that most are Anglican, Roman Catholic or Muslim.

“The drive of the chaplaincy provision is primarily the faith breakdown of the prison,” Kavanagh says. According to MoJ figures from June 2009, 34.7 per cent of the prison population professes no religion. There are, at present, no humanist chaplains in UK prisons. So what now? To many humanists, the very idea of a humanist chaplain is a contradiction in terms. To some, it’s simply pointless; to others, it smacks of unnecessary obstreperousness, elbowing into religious territory just to show that it can be done.

One widely held view is that professional counselling constitutes a secular counterpart to faith-based chaplaincy. “I believe no meaning exists in the world apart from the meaning I give to my life,” says Lee Partis, a counsellor and mental health practitioner at HMP Haverigg in Cumbria. “I will necessarily see depression, guilt, anxiety and so on from a slightly different perspective to that of someone who has a faith. The chaplains seem to offer a certainty based on the tenets of their faith, rooted in dogma; I offer an uncertainty based on the tenets of my belief system.” But the PGA’s Paddy Scriven argues that prison counselling, while valuable, may offer an unreasonably medicalised – and therefore results-based – view of prisoner care. “People say, ‘Oh, I want to see a counsellor’ – and think they’re going to cure it,” she says. “They don’t realise that life’s hard and that actually most of the work comes from yourself.”

Gijsbert Stoet, the co-ordinator of the Humanist Chaplaincy Network, is adamant that counselling should not be considered in the same context as chaplaincy – indeed, he believes that such false equivalency is damaging to the humanist chaplaincy movement. Chaplaincy, Stoet contends, is essentially about having someone to talk to – someone who, crucially, is “on the same page”, and “has the same view of life as you”, and is not bound – as counsellors are – by strict and limiting codes of conduct.

Stoet is in favour of the deployment of full-time humanist chaplains – but, with Government funds currently supporting only religious chaplains, it’s unclear where the money for such an undertaking would be found. Besides, Stoet notes, the humanist community remains divided on the question. A British Humanist Association working party has duly been convened.

Rev Kavanagh shows no such hesitancy. He makes the humanist case with breezy broad-mindedness. “I think it’s a great idea. The principle of having a humanist chaplain to speak with a humanist prisoner and perhaps be involved more widely in the work of the prison is something that people [in the chaplaincy] are entirely open to,” he says. “One of the things I think a humanist chaplain would bring is that they too are people who’ve asked those questions [of meaning and purpose], although they might come up with different answers from the ones that I’ve come up with.”

Kavanagh and Stoet are both mindful of the positive messages associated with the humanist viewpoint – basic concepts of human rights, human dignity, the value of human life, and so on. Each suggests a rallying point for humanist chaplains, a statement of the values that they would bring to needful prisoners. Stoet, naturally, proposes the Humanist Manifesto, with its “deep sense of purpose” and commitment to “treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity” in addition to its wider claims for rationalism; Kavanagh, inclusive as ever, suggests the “Charter for Compassion”, which he simply describes as “an attempt to bring people of good intentions together”. The two documents are notable for their unadorned humanity – a commodity, in prison, very much in demand.

There can be few more profound privations than the denial of the liberty to think and to freely express thoughts. Religion in the wider sense may play its part in such denial (may, indeed, be the turnkey-in-chief), but it’s evident that the conflation of religion with chaplaincy is increasingly erroneous. Humanist-inflected pastoral work is now very much the norm.

Where evangelism does break out in the prison system – as, somewhat worryingly, it threatens to do in the form of the officially sanctioned Kairos programme at Dorset’s HMP The Verne – it drastically misses the point, and undermines much of the progress that prison chaplaincy has made since the days of John Clay. “Chaplaincy brings more than religion to a prison, much more,” concludes Erwin James. “All the people I knew in chaplaincies over my 20 years, my God, they brought such humanity to those landings. You’ve got to survive those weeks or months or years. You’ve got to survive it as best you can.”

For an inside view on the chaplaincy issue, see the response we received from David Silver, a prisoner currently serving a life sentence in HMP Gartree