For a humanist counsellor, providing spiritual care in prison since the onset of the pandemic has become both more challenging and more rewarding than before. Following the new rules, Ellen van der Weerd does her utmost to deliver good care.
Outside, the new enemy is still raging. Inside, the impact of the lasting pandemic is slowly seeping into our system. It is February 2021 and the Ministry of Justice and Security is coping, for better or for worse. ‘We’ as humanist counsellors (spiritual or existential caregivers who in Dutch institutional settings function on a secular, humanistic basis alongside pastoral caregivers) in prisons in the Netherlands, as well as ‘we’ as a spiritual care team in our local men’s prison, are groping our way around in the new reality with its corresponding rules.
As spiritual care in detention has been identified as an essential profession, we have been permitted and encouraged to continue working on the spot since the outbreak of Covid-19 one year ago, although some colleagues have to stay at home because of their fragile health, or when their prison is in quarantine.
Large humanist reflection gatherings are prohibited; the maximum number of prisoners we are allowed to bring together in my prison is sixteen. Guests may not be invited to these gatherings anymore since the first wave in March 2020. I miss my volunteers, guest speakers and musicians, who courageously color the daily gray of jail routine. I value them highly and regard them as my ‘existential shell’; they support me and remind me of my humanist aspirations. Consequently, my work has become even more solitary than usual. Prison life – not so simple in the first place – sighs and groans under the austerities. Employees and inmates are struggling with the new reality. Guards and other colleagues are concerned.
No physical contact during visits for the men; the consequence is that they have not hugged their children for a year. Furlough – even in case of a death in the family – and temporary leave towards the end of the detention were impossible for the larger part of 2020 and still remain difficult to organize under the current restrictions. Outdoor recreation for prisoners in half groups. Face masks are mandatory for everyone. We do not know how much longer all these extra rules will apply. Even more fear, loneliness, powerlessness and discontent than usual.
We were spared the Italian atrocities we all watched in the news last year, and I silently admire both our prisoners and our system for their mental resilience. Our hidden vulnerable ones in the shadow of our society are shifting uncomfortably; hidden behind the thick walls of prison, and behind their own machismo. Adjusting to the discomfort of having even less than the usual minimal contact with the outside world. Condemned as they are by society for their deeds, the inmates are even more reluctant to show the despair of their broken lives. This reminds me of the words by the author David van Reybrouck: ‘In the shadow of loss, clarity grows next to vulnerability.’ Their hunger to be seen and appreciated as valuable human beings amidst this loss of human contact is clearer than ever.
A department head drops in at the start of a conversation group in his department. The almost fatherly care for his men radiates from him, and I forget the one-and-a-half-meter rule when I gesture him invitingly to sit down with us for a moment. Once he has left, there is grumbling and whining about the ongoing deprivations. Often blunt, occasionally nuanced; alongside anger there is also understanding. Sometimes the tension rises so high that participants leave the group. In my heart I thank and admire them for choosing this instead of starting a physical fight. The others continue to blow off steam.
Afterwards I visit the ones who left during the group, one by one in their cells. They pour their intensive narratives over me during which volume and tension increase, and after five minutes slowly decrease again. During these minutes I breathe patiently, yet with a pounding heart. I check with my hand if my alarm beeper is still attached to my trousers, I tell myself not to take this verbal aggression personally, and I think about the patience our prisoners have to display during the past year. The conversation ends with a smile and half a joke; a remaining bit of aggression is kicked into the only chair in the cell. Relieved, I say goodbye: ‘See you next week.’
The function of spiritual counsellors as a safety valve in the justice department in these times of loss, is clearer than ever. We are holding our hearts. Hearts are to be heard and to be held.