Priest learns from his mission in cell

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 April, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 April, 1995, 12:00am

DISCOVERY BAY'S Reverend Rob Gillion has been released from jail.

His crime? Suffering as a prisoner. His sentence? One week behind bars with 700 other men at the maximum-security Shek Pik Prison on Lantau Island. It was a voluntary jail term that inmate number 001 - or Father Robbery as he is affectionately known in prison circles - put to good use.

He tucked into three square meals of prison fare each day and worked alongside other prisoners binding books and sewing government-issue shirts.

He thus sampled the lives of the 100-odd men to whom he preaches each Tuesday, and scores more who have poured out their hearts to him.

'After four years of regular visits, I wanted a better understanding of the lives the prisoners were leading,' said Rev Gillion, the parish priest of Discovery Bay's Anglican church.

'I built up their trust enough to be allowed to go and live in the shoes of the prisoners for just one week.' Rev Gillion spent 10 years as an actor, director and mime artist before becoming an Anglican clergyman in 1983. He 'bonded' with Shek Pik's inmates during his first visit in 1991, when his introduction as Father Rob prompted peals of laughter.

'They pulled out a card from the top pocket of their shirts which has their name, inmate number and crime. For robbery it just says 'rob', so many of them began calling me Father Robbery.' Two years later, he spotted a Shek Pik prisoner's sketch of a pair of shoes, overshadowed by prison bars and the words: 'Put yourself in my shoes, and you may understand just where and how it hurts.' Clad in a brown clerical shirt, trousers and leather shoes, Father Rob became neither a full-fledged prisoner nor simply a visiting priest. Inmates made him an identity card so he would fit in. They listed his crime as 'suffering as prisoner'.

He ate prison meals of fish, rice, cabbage and congee. He paced the exercise compound, joined the weekly game of football and played Scrabble.

Father Robbery got 'put on report' and spent four hours in the special unit - where prisoners are sent for security or punishment.

He went to Bible study and had a telephone visit from a volunteer with the Prisoners' Friends Association, experiencing first-hand what it would be like to talk to a loved one on a speaker through glass. The only thing Father Robbery was not allowed to do during his jail stint was sleep in a cell, so he spent his nights alone in a room in the staff quarters.

'After a couple of days, the novelty wore off and brought me to the understanding of the helplessness of the prisoner - the darkness, the relentless routine,' said Rev Gillion.

'There is a lack of rehabilitation programmes. There's also the boredom and the lack of real creative activities,' said Rev Gillion.

'Many outsiders will say that after what these men have done, nothing is too much for them to suffer,' said Rev Gillion.

'But loss of freedom is loss enough and we should be attending to changing them and giving them a new life. My argument is if you pay attention to them now, there will be fewer victims in the future.'