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Living life on the outside

Ex prisoner Marc Renton finds a welcoming church after release. Photo by Osker Lau
After thirteen and a half years in prison, Marc Renton walked free in January of this year and headed straight for a church.

Not just any church, he headed for the Uniting Church congregation led by prison chaplain Beatriz Skippen.

With little preparation for the outside world, Mr Renton feels lucky to have met chaplains inside prison who helped him prepare for the next stage of his life.

“I think I’m blessed actually,” Mr Renton said while celebrating the work of former prison chaplaincy head, Charlie Greer (aka Charlie Chaplin).

“There has been no real transition for me. I think the Holy Spirit has been with me the whole time. Prison ministry is a very important tool for rehabilitation.

“It’s hard to explain the overall effect prison chaplains have on people. It would be hard for me to translate it to you until a door is slammed shut behind you and you are there alone. The prison ministers come in and there is a light. They have an ability to lead people back. If it wasn’t for them, I’d still be lost.”

It was only a few months ago that Mr Renton first met chaplain Beatiriz Skippen at a Bible study in prison.

“There is a saying in jail, a prison minister is called a sky pilot. God calls them and puts them in the right spot.

“To be a prison minister I’d say would be a very daunting task at the start. A lot of different things are going to happen every time they come in. A lot of prisoners don’t like them. A lot of prisoners won’t even talk to them. When you sit there talking to them you’ll hear sneers in the background.”

To live anywhere isolated from the outside world is difficult, but prisons can be boiling pots of anger, frustration and despair. Large numbers of inmates, including Mr Renton, suffer mental illnesses such as depression while in prison.

“To start with, you are in an abnormal environment. People have a lot of stereotypical ideas of what a prison is like and all of those stereotypes are wrong. A lot of the things you hear about do happen, but they happen out here as well. It is not a very nice place, but prison ministers help.

“If you are lucky enough to be led back to the Lord, it doesn’t matter if you are in prison or out here. It is all the same, you are still free.”

To Mr Renton, prison chaplains are a perfect example of what it is to be a Christian. “Have a look at what Jesus did. Who did he talk to? Adulterers, prostitutes, tax collectors and so forth. Prison ministers come in and they act like Jesus acted. They take the time. Like on Christmas day, where was Beatriz? In prison having a church service with us! I’m sure a lot of other people would have preferred to be at home with their families.”

Prison ministry and the ability to pursue his faith while imprisoned gave Mr Renton “direction” in his life.

“Who understands a prisoner? Where do you go? What do you do? You think everyone is looking at you. I went straight to the Uniting Church.  What a good church! I was welcomed straight away. Without that, it would have been very difficult. It is unfortunate there is not more funding that goes into prison ministry.”

With a large number of inmates being repeat offenders, we need to ask if prisons are the best thing to deal with crime in society.

“Something has to be done but what do you do? If you follow the Christian model, forgiveness should be enough. But you are looking at a system that looks at retribution and punishment, and what is justice? It is about bringing balance, it shouldn’t be about retribution.

“Whether they like it or not, 99% of the prisoners are going to be released back into the community. It is how you release them back in the community that will affect the community.

“The only solution is to look at the reintegration. How do we re-establish prisoners? How do we put them back in the community? How do we reduce their chances of re-offending?

“These are the things that need to be looked at. That should be the focus. You are detained for ‘x’ amount of years, what’s the plan? Everyone needs a plan.”

Mr Renton began a science degree while an inmate and is set to complete his studies this year.

Photo : Ex prisoner Marc Renton finds a welcoming church after release. Photo by Osker Lau