Belfast Telegraph

Humanists take on pastoral care role for atheists in Northern Ireland prison

Atheist inmates at Maghaberry prison can now speak with humanist carers after an initiative by campaigners
Atheist inmates at Maghaberry prison can now speak with humanist carers after an initiative by campaigners
Ralph Hewitt

By Ralph Hewitt

Atheist inmates at Maghaberry prison can now speak with humanist carers after an initiative by campaigners.

Non-religious pastors have been allowed for the first time to run a secular "chaplaincy service" in the jail.

The Northern Ireland Humanists group, which is part of Humanists UK, recruited two trained non-religious pastoral carers after gaining permission from the Department of Justice.

A Criminal Justice Inspection report in 2019 into Maghaberry found that inmates who identify as having "no religion" make up the largest group of the jail's population, after Christians.

Speaking to The Guardian, Ciaran McWilliams, one of the new carers for atheist prisoners, said that his experience as a shop steward in a Belfast factory was "perfect training" for dealing with the inmates.

Mr McWilliams spends one day a week at the jail along with a female colleague, and can meet up to eight prisoners each time.

"When I was a trade union official it felt very much like pastoral care at times," the former Bombardier employee explained.

"Besides talking to fellow workers about pay issues, an impending strike or bullying on the shop floor, many of them would pour their hearts out about other things far beyond the factory.

"In my time I had to talk to colleagues about their marriage breaking up or their problems with drink and so on.

"I hope I can bring some of that experience in this new role as a non-religious pastor.

"What I've learned so far since we were allowed into the jail is that non-believer prisoners will talk about a wide range of things.

"It could be about their belief that they should not be in there right to discussions on what is the meaning of life. A lot of them have serious anxiety and PTSD issues as well."

The 47-year-old trade unionist, who retired from his previous role at Bombardier on medical grounds, said he can spend between five minutes to half an hour with each inmate.

Boyd Sleator, the Northern Ireland Humanists coordinator, said that non-religious prisoners had the same legal rights for pastoral care as inmates with religious beliefs.

"Demand for non-religious pastoral care is growing not only in all of Northern Ireland's prisons but also its hospitals," he said.

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