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Ex-prisoner finds ‘freedom’ in chaplaincy support


Joanne says she continues to rely on the support of her Salvation Army prison chaplain since being released. Photo: Krists Luhaers

What is it like to be sentenced to prison? Ex-prisoner JOANNE* shares her story of being incarcerated at Melbourne’s female maximum security prison and how Salvation Army Prison Chaplain Major Alison Platt made a profound difference in her life through unwavering compassion, empathy, understanding and support.

 

When I was incarcerated at the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre in Victoria, it was December 2018. My first (and only) time going into this foreign world I had never experienced.


I was told that we could speak to chaplains for support if we chose. Though I hadn’t been an active church member for a while, I decided to enter the chapel and have a chat. Of course, I was wary of being overwhelmed with religion from a chaplain, but that is not what I got.


So, what did I get from a chaplain, specifically Alison? I got understanding, compassion, empathy, support, friendship, education, tutoring, guidance, humour, life experience, confidentiality and even free coffee and tea! And so much more.


So, let me expand on these gifts. She provided a space where I and others could go to talk about any issues without judgement. You go through so much more than I could hope to explain when you are incarcerated and yes, post-traumatic stress disorder is real.


You carry the burden of guilt so heavily for being in jail and all the reasons why and who it affects on such a broad front, yet there is a beacon of light at the chapel called Alison who is there to welcome anyone who drops by for a shoulder to cry on or have a laugh with. Not just to talk and learn about religion. To feel safe to be vulnerable, when outside in the yard, you cannot show that vulnerability. To participate in the Positive Lifestyle Program, a course on self-reflection and change, is so popular that there is a permanent waitlist for participation.


Major Alison Platt, the Salvation Army Prison Chaplain, who has shared the love of Jesus in Melbourne’s women’s prison for the past nine years.

If you were unable to attend the chapel, Alison would come to see you in your unit, always willing to make time for anyone no matter why they were asking. If you didn’t see her for religious reasons, it didn’t matter, as her door is always open.


Each week, a coffee, tea and chat morning is held where women can come in at any time, sit down and grab a coffee or tea and a biscuit or even homemade goodies (she bakes as well) and talk as a group or by themselves about anything. It’s a chance to feel human in a time of unnatural circumstances.


Throughout the COVID pandemic, times were particularly unsettling with many visits and services cancelled at the prison, yet I always knew with a quick note that Alison was there when we needed her. She is there for court support for many women, often going along to support and comfort women when they are going through their trials before sentencing.


Then there are the celebrations that she is such a big part of too. Not just Easter and Christmas services but supportive of our achievements such as education, drama, art etc, often attending shows or graduation events.


I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Christmas hampers. The effort that goes in behind the scenes is astonishing. I know that Alison has many volunteers from The Salvation Army who help, but there is a vast amount of time in preparation for which she alone is responsible.


So, what else does a chaplain do? Well, they organise support services for those doing it tough both inside and when they leave prison. Vouchers for food and clothing. Housing referrals and support services for mental and physical health and rehabilitation.


A coffee and a chat in the prison chapel was always a chance to feel human in a time of unnatural circumstances, says Joanne. Photo: Kira Auf Der Heide

Alison is also the person we turn to when illness or death occurs to family members whilst we are in custody. Being a comfort for those experiencing a virtual funeral, a shoulder for mums doing it tough with custody issues, a conduit for those not allowed to contact someone. The voice of positivity when all our hope is lost. The giver of bad dad jokes. Able to bring a smile or to share the burden of whatever is right or wrong.

I am sure there is so much more that I could say about Major Alison Platt, The Salvation Army chaplain at Dame Phyllis Frost Centre (DPFC).


I have learnt so much and have had the pleasure of being involved with her outside of jail when on release.


Here I am, nearly two years post-incarceration, still able to pick up the phone and talk to her and lean on her for support when needed and that is a great feeling.


I only wish those who are reading this have the chance to cross paths with Alison and benefit from her knowledge, her compassion, her wisdom, her love of God, her friendship.


It is something I am lucky enough to have experienced as have the many women who have passed through her door at DPFC over the many years of service she has given.


Thank you doesn’t seem enough.


– As told to Salvos Online journalist Lerisse Smith

 

*Not her real name. Joanne’s identity has been protected.

 

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