They might have had their freedom taken away by the courts, but inside the Glen Innes Correctional Centre, Mark Dawson tries his best to create a sense of freedom for inmates.
The full-time chaplain at the minimum security facility east of Glen Innes has been at the jail for a long time.
A member of the Australian Christian Churches, he began working at the correctional centre as a leather work teacher, then in 2005 he began his chaplaincy work.
“Forty-five inmates regularly attend our chapel services. Fortunately they do not all turn up at the same time; otherwise, there would not be enough room,” he said.
When the hobby courses were taken out of the jails in 2005, “Dawso” as he is known, began training to be a chaplain.
He has since competed a Clinical Pastoral Education Diploma and a Diploma of Counselling.
Mr Dawson left school thinking he was not very clever, and then understanding his own dyslexia he felt free to pursue his career as a chaplain.
“I started in minimum security, then I went and worked in Balunda, Grafton, and Tamworth. I would move between the maximum and minimum security. But I have been permanent at Glen Innes since 2010,” Mr Dawson said.
Mr Dawson’s clients are all inmates in the jail.
The jail, when full, has an operating capacity of 208 inmates. The difference in working in a jail is that the chaplain visits the clients.
“Dawso” receives his referrals from prison officers, welfare personal and other inmates who will mention that someone is doing it tough.
Every aspect of security that applies to everyone in the jail also applies to the chaplain. There are several sections to the centre that depended on the classification of the inmates, places them into different groups. One important group are the inmates who are facing deportation they are often fearful that they will arrive in their country of birth and not know anyone, especially if their family remains behind in Australia.
The chaplain’s training involves approaching inmates, listening to them, counselling them and he conducts twice weekly religious services.
Every inmate meets the chaplain and his independent position is provided privately to the clients, which is explained to that inmate on arrival.
“The inmate feels low, especially on arrival into jail, no self-esteem then the expression of acceptance, getting the message across that God loves them.
“They hear the simple message that God accepts the wrongdoing. The inmates self-esteem, improves, they feel that spiritual exchange with God; they suddenly feel that they are good enough. Jesus takes the inmates wrongdoing, and in faith we accept Jesus ‘right doing’. The inmate accepts; the inmate does not have to earn it. The simple gospel is expressed in chapel.”
Mr Dawson said a service can lift their spirits, and change their lives.
“It is not just religion. I believe that real Christianity is not religion. I don’t think the inmate has to earn anything for God. God shares the responsibility. The inmate claims it by faith.
“If the inmate thinks that they are a dirt bag, well, guess how they will act. I get them to understand that they are not a dirt bag as far as God is concerned. I go to them primarily. They don’t have to make an appointment to see me. I get referrals to go and see someone.”
Inmates are at their lowest, when they arrive in jail..Mark Dawson
He said a minor crime can return people to jail over and over again.
“I think the majority of inmates don’t like the lack of freedom. We do canvas difficult topics but I keep notes only in formal counselling sessions. My handwriting is pretty illegible so there conversations are safe.”
He said really low self esteem was common among inmates.
“They are very good at hiding that feeling, especially in maximum security.
“I see in all races of people with this really low self- esteem and each return to prison, a small number do become institutionalised. But I think it is rare for someone to talk about that they are comfortable coming back to jail. In the last 12 months, I would have chatted to two inmates who were talking about being alright with coming back, to jail but the majority are not.
“To have two inmates tell me they are scared to go back into the community, but that is very rare, because they feel safe; that is institutionalisation.
“Then some say, I am really pleased I am here; if I had not been put in jail, I would be dead now. Addiction, alcoholism, all the violence, that kills someone.
“I think from a recidivism point of view, the time out of jail, is getting longer for a lot of offenders. There are a lot of guys I deal with that I think, they will never come back.
He has the role of a professional listener, which connects with men who have lost their freedom.
“Being a chaplain, it will be the inmate that brings the conversation around to spirituality. They will eventually talk to me about God, not all of them, but the majority.
“If you listened to someone and you have heard their story, then they want to hear yours. People are curious about God whether they admitted it or not, especially when you are in jail,” he said.