Who are the Catholics in prison?

Fr Simon Heans is a Catholic Prison Chaplain in London. For this Prisoners’ Week, we have asked him for an insight into his mission.

Who are the Catholics in prison?wire-mesh

They are young men, viz., under 40. Many are from all over the world: India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, S. America, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Poland, Albania, Lithuania, Ukraine and Ireland with a significant representation from the Traveller community.

The London inmates (I work in a London prison) are often from immigrant backgrounds with Irish predominating.

The locals have mostly done little at school and often have not had contact with a father, and sometimes not even mother. Those have been brought up by Nan who has taken them to Mass. But what the locals have in common with many of the foreigners is drug and alcohol abuse. A group apart are the sex offenders because they are usually well-educated.

What about Mass in prison?

They do come. I get 80 – 90. Prisoners do readings but I’m keen on the kind of active participation recommended by Benedict XVI, viz., interior and contemplative. We don’t share the Peace for that reason. Music is a mixture of Gregorian Chant (in Latin from the CD Plainsong for Parishes) and hymns sung unaccompanied (the hymns CDs are from a Protestant hymn book and it doesn’t have Soul of My Saviour or Sweet Heart of Jesus). We have an Offertory and an Exit hymn; they usually join in with my bellowing very cheerfully.

How about the other sacraments?

macro-blossom-orangeHearing confessions is an important part of my ministry as you would expect. Most have not made a confession since they did their First Holy Communion preparation.

Without breaking the Seal, I can say that the crime for which they have been incarcerated is invariably the tip of a large and ugly iceberg. I always tell them about the importance of regular confessions, i.e., once a month.

Baptisms and receptions into the Church happen quite a lot in prisons. A number of men I have met have become Catholics at that time and I myself have added to their number by about thirty. I am still in touch with a couple who have kept their promises. I hope the rest are still practising. I run courses and the materials provided free of charge by the CTS have been very helpful, especially the Bibles and the Simple Prayer Book.

What about other Christians?

Most are from Pentecostal churches. They attend a service labelled Church of England but it most definitely is not Anglican!

What about Muslims?blossom

They are a large group in prisons but add the Christians of all stripes together and they just outnumber the former in my establishment. Bar a handful of white converts, the Muslims I have come across have been unfailingly polite and respectful. A lot call me Father!

They address each other as ‘Bruv’, and I like to point out that unless they have a Father in heaven, they cannot be brothers on earth. I also talk to them about jihad, the spiritual and moral battle, and they agree that Christians fight it too.

Is there Muslim extremism in prison?

There is one full-time imam and three part-time where I work. They are deferred to by the prisoners so as long as they are not radicals there is no problem. I have only heard of one case of a prisoner with extremist views trying to spread them and he was stopped by the imam.

What about reoffending and rehabilitation?

My view is that, like the poor, prisoners will always be with us. Many do come back and I make it clear that they are always welcome. That is one way the Catholic prison chaplain can be ‘merciful like the Father’. Thanks to the support of the CBCEW the icon below is being given to all prison chaplains and a smaller version will be made available to prisoners to mark this Jubilee of Mercy.

Icon by Rev. Regan O’Callaghan (www.reganocallaghan.com)

Pope Francis, talking to prisoners said:
“Jesus wants to help us to set out again,
to resume our journey,
to recover our hope,
to restore our faith and trust.
He wants us to keep walking along the paths of life,
to realise that we have a mission,
and that confinement is not the same thing as exclusion.”

May Mary, Mother of Mercy, pray for us.



CTS Prison Appeal will be open until the end of October 2016. There are different ways you can donate:
– on our dedicated JustGiving page
– via phone by calling our office
– text BIBL16 to 70070 to donate a Bible (£10)

Thanks to your support, we have helped many prisoners. This month, we can achieve even more. Thank you

Corporal Works of Mercy - cover


Corporal Works of Mercy, by Mgr Richard Atherton




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