Still hard work done in prisons

Loneliness in prison

Hedy Brenner visited prisoners in Swiss prisons for over 10 years.

While serving in the Salvation Army prison service, Hedy Brenner visited prisoners and provided pastoral care until she retired. In the name of the Salvation Army, she continues to accompany people in this environment: those released who have to rebuild a “normal” life. She took the time to talk briefly about loneliness in prison.

How have your experiences of loneliness been over the years as a pastor in prison?
First of all, it is important for me to mention that I can only speak about the people who have sought contact with me. The initiative for a conversation always comes from the prisoner. These are people who have dealt with our service and recognized a benefit for themselves before the first contact. However, they only form a small section of the prisoners.

What can you say about those who wanted contact?
During my 10 years I have accompanied 500 different people. Some for just one visit, others for the entire 10 years. The prison conditions have changed in these 10 years - usually to the disadvantage of the prisoners, which makes their stay more difficult. Longer sentences are more likely to be pronounced. As a result, the average age is increasing and the number of those who are in prison of AHV age increases. This in turn reduces the number of contacts with the outside world - family members and friends die and drop out as visitors.

Aging with dignity and with a minimum of social contacts is made impossible ...
There are also people with poor contact outside of prisons, but sure, in prison it's even harder. Some efforts towards age wards in prisons try to alleviate this fact, but are still rare.

Did you also have contact with prisoners who opened up to your Christian message or gave their lives to Jesus?
There are always very many who deal with questions of meaning and with faith, no matter what form or direction. I often heard about my work: "Oh, how nice that the Salvation Army is bringing the faith into prisons." I always say: "You don't have to put God in prison, he's already there." The confrontation with him and the divine in general takes place, even without our intervention.
Nor can one say that the prisoners are all tough guys who have no idea about religion. I got to know a number of people who had an ecclesiastical, in some cases even deeply religious, past. However, their origin could not prevent the crime.
In summary, I would say that religion is more of an issue in prison than outside. I only had contact with people who knew what I was doing and from what background.

In addition to keeping your distance and visiting bans, I could imagine Corona also brought about other changes in everyday prison life. Were the prisoners also more afraid, e.g. B. from infection?

Plexiglass panes were installed so that you could only talk to visitors behind this pane. Of course, this makes a conversation more difficult because it is harder to understand each other. A man I'm still with pressed the emergency button during the conversation. He wanted to end it because from his point of view it no longer made sense. There were isolated corona cases in the prisons.

What is it like for the released ones to come to a world in which everyone is wearing masks?
Masks are not an issue in my contact discussions. But it has become even more difficult to find work because of Corona. Most of the people I deal with are foreigners. Many of them have to leave the country after imprisonment. In their countries of origin, unemployment is even higher than usual due to the corona. In these countries there is usually also a lack of welfare state aid. The men are all in a desperate situation.

That sounds like a lot of lack of prospects and hopelessness. How do you deal with it?
It's like two things: First of all, my perception of the situation is not necessarily the same as the person affected. For example, there are men who still have a good social network in their country of origin. Perhaps they work there without wages, but they have someone to give them food, a bed and a roof over their heads. So they usually don't have the same expectations as we do here in Switzerland. Second, these people draw strength from their faith, which is evident in contact. That helps me and I have to keep reminding myself.

Doesn't the situation also help them to relapse quickly and become criminals again?
None of those I know succumbed to the temptation to join the mafia, for example, and make a quick buck. I give them credit for that.

Are there increasing thoughts of suicide?
Thoughts of suicide are a little more common in face-to-face discussions, but are still rather rare.

How do you see the situation with regard to the coming Christmas?
In most prisons, events are held in Advent. This year we had to be inventive: The Advent concert on the Thorberg was canceled due to Corona. The audience and musicians are not allowed to come into the multi-purpose room. The solution now is for the musicians to play in the courtyard and the prisoners to listen from their cells. In general, Christmas is always a tough, emotional time for many.

What else would you like to give the pastors of the Salvation Army in relation to working with the lonely?
Through the pot collections, the Salvation Army collects money once a year to make lonely people happy for Christmas. I think it's a shame that we only get in touch with them once a year at Christmas. Sometimes I also hear this from parcel recipients in prison. You miss the contact even during the year. Second, I can say that there are people who don't want to be in society. That is to be respected. You can't force anyone into community.