Compassion knows no barriers
Reverend Will Newman has served as prison chaplain at Stanley Prison for eight years
Prisoners tend to be out of sight and out of mind to anyone other than perhaps their loved ones, which is why they often value the visits of those who care for their welfare within the community.
Every Friday the Reverend Will Newman walks the short distance from St Stephen’s Chapel, where he is based, to Stanley Prison to talk with Category A prisoners.
Category A prisoners are those in for the long haul, often for murder, and there are about 200 of them at Stanley.
Newman has been in Hong Kong for nine years, after serving in a parish near Colchester in southeast England.
This is not his first taste of China. Newman, now 52, used to work for the VSO, or Voluntary Services Overseas, an international development charity that works through volunteers.
“I went to China to teach English with VSO in 1986,” says Newman. “Then from 1990 to 1994 I was part of the management of the VSO programme in China, supporting the volunteers and the employers.”
Newman, a father of two teenage sons, has served as prison chaplain at Stanley Prison for eight years.
“Every Friday morning I go in with a number of volunteers from St Stephen’s and St John’s Cathedral. We are at the prison for one hour and 40 minutes. The first hour is the communion service, and the other 40 minutes is a chance to talk with the prisoners.”
For the prisoners, the contact with Newman and his volunteers is especially valued as it is not carried out through a glass screen. “The service book is bilingual, as are the hymns. When I give the sermon, either a volunteer or prisoner will translate it as I go. The prisoners sometimes lead the prayers and join in the hymns.
“In the groups we see, there’s at least one prisoner who plays the guitar, sometimes two or three. At the end of the sermon I ask for their thoughts and comments, and sometimes one will say: ‘Well, that’s all very well, but how does it relate to our lives’, and we carry on a discussion.
“They’re in for murder or for carrying drugs,” says Newman. While he doesn’t specifically ask them, many prisoners tell Newman about how they landed in jail.
“Many of them are Hong Kong Chinese, of course,” says Newman. “Some are mainlanders, or Filipinos. There’s a Malaysian and an Indian. There are still some Vietnamese there from the time of the boat camps. They got caught up in fights and committed murder, so they’ve been in for 20 years.”
Most prisoners who were caught at the airport carrying drugs come from Africa and South America, says Newman, and the prison experience is a very isolating as they knew no one in Hong Kong before their conviction. They are allowed to call their families, but the phone calls are limited.
Newman says in all the eight years he has been bringing in male and female volunteers, there has never been any threat or intimidation. They are greeted with kindness and friendliness.
“I think one of the most important things is that people who do these terrible things are not necessarily terrible people. Some of them are absolutely driven to despair by the situation they’re in and something snaps. Then there are others who were in triad gangs and knew what they were doing.”
Newman says Christmas can be a lonely time, particularly for foreign inmates.
“Most of the Chinese feel more down at Lunar New Year, as that’s when families are supposed to be together,” he says. “It’s harder for the foreign prisoners who have their families far away. One group of prisoners did a Christmas service for us, taking it in turns to read out parts. They had practised carols and they sang for us. It was very moving.”
Some of the local prisoners have been cut off by their families and friends, and for them Newman and his volunteers are really their only friends. For other luckier prisoners, Newman is always impressed by loyal wives and girlfriends who regularly visit and are waiting for their husbands or boyfriends to be released.