New Edmonton Remand Centre under construction in January 2012. The facility is currently Canada's largest prison. Photo by Alberta Justice and Solicitor General, via Flickr

Remand centre chaplains offer guidance in stressful times

The following is the third instalment of a multi-part series detailing the work of Anglicans involved in prison ministry. Read Part 1 and Part 2. Visit the Anglican Church of Canada website later this month for future instalments.

Inmates at the Edmonton Remand Centre represent a group in transition—either those awaiting trial if not granted bail or those awaiting a bail hearing if not yet sentenced. As a result, its population is highly fluid, with 1,600-1,700 male and female inmates residing in the centre at any given time, and approximately 50-75 inmates entering or leaving on any given day.

For remand centre chaplains such as the Rev. Quinn Strikwerda, day-to-day work with inmates involves helping them at their most stressful times. Chaplains may flag those who have never been incarcerated before, or those going into trial. Many people in crisis may be feeling suicidal, have recently lost loved ones, or have had their children taken away by social services.

“As you can imagine, a jail is a place where people get very lonely,” Strikwerda said.

“They’re often very afraid. Sometimes, they’re in a place where they may find themselves sober for the first time in a long, long time, because all their drug supplies have been cut off, and they’re stuck in jail. They’re maybe even fuzzy on what happened and what’s going on. But they’re feeling really like, ‘Now is the time when I need to start to really think about where is my life going.’”

To help guide inmates through those stressful periods, chaplains will sit down with them for one-on-one conversations. The resulting encounters, Strikwerda said, involve “helping people to frame their lives and really just hopefully…opening a window so that God can come in.”

Chaplains in provincial remand centres face different conditions from those in federal prisons, with the former having a much higher volume of inmates and less stability in terms of population. Inmates at remand centres awaiting trial or sentencing face greater uncertainty than those in federal correctional facilities, who have already been sentenced.

Since Strikwerda began serving as a chaplain at the Edmonton Remand Centre more than three years ago, the inmate population there has seen a dramatic increase, from approximately 1,000 to the current figures of 1,600-1,700 inmates.

Regardless of the given situation for each inmate, the work of chaplaincy involves helping them cope through spiritual guidance as well as practical assistance.

“If they have a trial coming up, we’ll go down to units and we’ll do a whole prayer liturgy with them…just to give them a sense of being able to hand the process over to God,” Strikwerda said.

In cases of personal stress, “We just try to be with people in those moments that are obviously very difficult,” he said. “For people who have lost family members, a lot of our work involves trying to get them to a funeral if it’s possible…or if they can’t go to a funeral, we’ll very often do memorial services with them here in the jail.”

As remand centre chaplains continue to improve their approach to the work, Strikwerda annually attends conferences on restorative justice to examine the possibility of incorporating new concepts into chaplaincy.

Talks are also underway to have instructors from local Christian educational institutions offer weeklong courses on topics such as church history or the New Testament, for which inmates could receive credits—an idea Strikwerda was “pretty excited about,” noting, “I think that it really gives people something to work towards and to feel really good about.”

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