Prison chaplain spreads hope to inmates

October 12, 2023
UnitingCare Prison Chaplain Ray Scarlett stands in front of an image of a tall ship.

Ray Scarlett has been a prison chaplain for just over a year, but he has dedicated his life to helping people through the power of education and faith.

“It is an honour to be doing prison chaplaincy,” Ray says.

For more than 40 years, Ray worked in the education and training sector across many industries. His roles ranged from being a university lecturer at the University of Southern Queensland, a medical education officer at Queensland Health and the director of a study abroad program through Boston University.

While his positions have been diverse, each shared the core responsibility of supporting people in taking on new challenges to improve their lives.

It is a passion he missed when he retired and moved to Hervey Bay in Queensland in 2020.

Through a chance encounter at a men’s group, however, he was told about the volunteer prison chaplain positions at UnitingCare, the community service arm of the Uniting Church in Queensland – the church he has been a member of for many years.

Wanting to continue making a difference to people’s lives by providing emotional and spiritual support, Ray felt his skillset would make him an ideal prison chaplain.

“We help set up study groups, help them with their thinking, reading and praying, but we don’t push particular religious beliefs on them.”

UnitingCare’s Prison Ministry program supports prisoners at 15 correctional centres across Queensland.

Trained prison chaplains offer non-denominational pastoral care and faith-based services to care for prisoners of all backgrounds, cultures and religions. They visit regularly and become confidants for prisoners who are often struggling with isolation and mental health issues.

“They get to see a prison chaplain nearly every day,” Ray says. “Our role is to listen to people, empathise with people and try to help them make better decisions.”

Ray believes prison chaplains have the potential to improve prisoners’ wellbeing and self-esteem, which can result in inmates making better decisions once they leave jail.

Most prisoners have a compelling story about how they ended up in such a difficult situation, he says, and they often fall through the gaps and get stuck in a cycle of crime.

“I always try to talk to people before they leave the prison system, and a lot of them haven’t thought about how they might do things differently.

“I try to help them construct a different life for themselves before they leave.”

While acknowledging he can’t control their actions, he said small acts of kindness make a big difference.

“I’ve had people come to me and ask, ‘Can you just pray with me as I’m going through a difficult time?’

“I have had people tell me that I’ve really helped them.”

The importance of giving back is a lesson he learnt from his parents who were missionary workers, through their church, in Australia and New Guinea in the 1960s. At one point, his father became the manager of a prison farm in Oxley.

“It was like a halfway house – it was innovative, and it was extremely successful. It was a farm and people who were long-term offenders would come out of prison and learn structure when transitioning back into society.”

Ray’s advice to people considering becoming a chaplain: “You’ll get so much out of it.

“Talk to a chaplain… I’m happy to chat to anyone interested in becoming a chaplain. Think about why you’re doing it and then get some information about it – it is important are doing it for the right reason.”

Visit our Prison Ministry page to learn more about our chaplaincy service and how to volunteer.