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Faith-based unit fosters prisoners who seek change through God

By Marilyn Pryor

In October a new initiative opened at Rimutaka Prison near Upper Hutt – a 60-bed unit called He Korowai Whakapono or Cloak of Faith. It was set up to give Christian inmates the opportunity to worship and learn together as they prepare themselves for life outside prison.

The faith-based unit is the first of its kind in Australasia, and only the eighth in the world. It’s based on similar facilities in the United States where it has been found that inmates who complete the programme are much less likely to reoffend after leaving prison.

He Korowai Whakapono is the result of years of negotiation between the Department of Corrections and the Prison Fellowship organisation. Both inmates and staff must volunteer for the unit, which is run by Corrections staff in the same way as the rest of the prison.

Unlike other units, prisoners have two hours of Christian worship and instruction everyday and the entire culture of the unit is based on Christian principles. It aims to help inmates build a support network and find a mentor to prepare them for life on the outside.

At the opening of the unit general manager of the Public Prisons Service Phil McCarthy said Corrections is committed to the programme.

‘Faith has a role to play in reducing offending,’ Phil said. ‘With the right support, there are plenty of examples of people who leave behind gangs and a life of crime after becoming a Christian in prison.’

Sr Marie Roche has been the Catholic prison chaplain at Rimutaka Prison for eight years. She says the prison is a world of its own where the only people prisoners trust are those who wear the same patch as them. Bullying, threats and stand-over tactics are part of the prison environment. But in the new unit the whole mentality is different.

“Here everything comes together — the psychological, the spiritual, the physical, and the mental. People on the staff are absolutely committed and we have wonderfully committed men out there in the compound. It’s their dream too.

“Many of these men have had nothing positive in their lives — the way they’ve been talked to, the evil that has been put on them by others, the sexual abuse many have experienced. It’s all been woven into their lives and becomes part of them.

“There are people walking around with a huge vacuum inside. They fill that vacuum with drugs, alcohol, sex and violence. When they meet God, that vacuuum can be filled. Every jail wants a unit like this. It’s the dream of every chaplain.”

Patrick Lewis is manager of programmes in the Faith Based Unit. With 12 years experience as a prison officer at Rimutaka, Patrick understands prison life and is a realist about the challenges facing the new unit. At the same time he is passionate about the initiative.

“When a man can open his life to God, he can be transformed. These guys have known pain and agony and it will not be easy. God will transform their lives if they’re open to him.

“You don’t have to be a Christian to come here. We say you need to be willing to acknowledge God in your life and that you are willing to take this journey.”

For the first four weeks of the programme, the inmates learn what it means to live in a Christian community. They then go through eight modules on transformation, and then learn what will be needed to reintegrate into the community.

Patrick says the work of the unit is based on six core values — integrity, restoration, responsibility, community building, affirmation and productivity.

“The programme involves living out what you’re taught and living what you think is right. The hardest thing for these guys is to change from the prison mentality to being part of a Christian community. We can struggle with that on the outside so you can imagine how difficult it can be in here. We’re there to encourage them. We are the cloak over 60 men who are trying to change.”