Highest Security of Northern Irish Prison for the First Time in Secular Chaplains News from the UK


Non-religious pastors are allowed for the first time to conduct a secular “chaplain ministry” for atheistic prisoners in the highest security prison in which some of the most dangerous paramilitary prisoners in Europe are held.

Prisoners who do not believe in God at Maghaberry Prison in Northern Ireland can now speak to humanist carers.

Up to 50 convicted New IRA and other violent dissidents are imprisoned in Maghaberry. They are trapped in a prison on the outskirts of Belfast from fewer convicted loyalist paramilitary.

The Humanist Group in Northern Ireland, part of the Humanist Group in the UK, has received two trained non-religious pastoral caregivers who have entered Maghaberry this year, after obtaining permission from the Regional Ministry of Justice.

The 2019 criminal justice review report at Maghaberry found that after Christians, prisoners who identify themselves as “without religion” are the largest prison group.

One of the new caretakers of atheistic prisoners, Ciaran McWilliams, said his work for two decades as a sales manager at the Belfast factory was “the perfect training” for the treatment of prisoners.

McWilliams spends one day a week with a colleague in the humanist movement in prison.

“When I was a trade union official, it sometimes seemed very similar to pastoral care. In addition to talking to colleagues about rewarding problems, an impending strike, or bullying on the floor, many of them poured their hearts on other things far beyond the factory. In my time, I had to talk to my colleagues about how their marriage was breaking up or what the drinking problems were and so on. I hope I can bring some of this experience in this new role of a non-religious pastor.

“So far I’ve learned since we were put in jail, that unbelieving prisoners will talk about many things. It could be their belief that there should be no right to discuss what the meaning of life is. Many of them have serious concerns and problems with PTSD. “

A 47-year-old unionist, who for health reasons left the Bombardier aircraft manufacturer in East Belfast, said he spent five minutes to half an hour with each atheist prisoner. Up to now, he and his humanist colleague, who does not wish to be appointed for security concerns, have met up to eight prisoners per week.

Up to 90 prisoners in a wider population of prisoners in Northern Ireland have declared themselves “unbelievers”.

McWilliams said he noticed that there was relief among the unbelievers in Maghaberry that secular pastoral care was now offered.

“Atheistic prisoners may feel more isolated than those who are religious. Other prisoners see chaplains and attend Sunday worship services where collective worship takes place. Some have told us they have no family or other visitors, and we may be the only ones they talk to in a day. A hearing that made us realize how important our work is, the prison management and the staff welcomed us. “

His colleague said she was impressed with how she was treated by prison officers.

“They were courteous, courteous and welcomed from the beginning. Some of them have a real view of the gap we filled in the lives of those prisoners who don’t believe.” As for the prisoners themselves, I think the key thing we have done so far is simply to listen to them and let them comment, ”she added.

McWilliams said their long-term goal was to create a training / discussion group among atheistic prisoners.

Humanist Coordinator in Northern Ireland Boyd Sleator stressed that non-believing prisoners have the same rights to pastoral care as prisoners with religious beliefs.

“Demand for non-religious pastoral care is growing not only in all prisons in Northern Ireland, but also in hospitals. This is because there is a growing number of people in the census and public surveys who say they are unbelievers or unbelievers. This shows tremendous progress when the first shepherd caregivers have appeared in Maghaberry, and we hope it will now appear in multiple environments, ”he said.

Almost 20% of the prisons in England and Wales and 45% in hospitals have non-religious shepherd carers.