Pastoral care: in the right place in prison

His workplace is a place of mistrust. You don’t find real friends here. To open oneself can have bad consequences. But that is precisely why it is important to georg ruhsert to be there for people in a difficult personal situation as a trustworthy discussion partner and companion. The schwarzacher stands by prisoners in wurzburg and schweinfurt as a pastor.

The interview date is running late. A death in the family of a prisoner. For pastoral counselor georg ruhsert, it’s not a question of what’s going on now: it’s not him who has to report on his work for an article, but the person who is in an exceptional situation and may need his support. He offers them, makes it clear that he is there for the prisoner. Whether the person accepts it is up to him. In prison, the church is not so different from "out".

Search for the meaning in life

Georg ruhsert comes from schwarzach, studied theology and then worked for nine years in the pastoral care of parishes. He has grown particularly fond of people who are not always visible when looking at society. Ruhsert moved to the wurzburg institute for the blind, where he worked a lot with children with visual and multiple disabilities. Two years ago, the change to prison chaplaincy followed.

Together with two catholic and a protestant colleague, he is there for about 600 inmates of the correctional facilities in wurzburg and schweinfurt. He shares his post with a colleague and also works in the counseling center for marriage, family and life issues of the diocese of wurzburg.

"People don’t sit here for nothing," says georg ruhsert. There is a reason – one, often several acts that brought them here. Fraud, theft, bodily harm, sexual offenses… But the 51-year-old also says: "these people, like everyone else, have a need to find meaning in their lives. They also want to be happy."To accompany you on this search for the meaning and purpose of life, that’s where georg ruhsert sees his task. "It is an important service that the church can provide to the people here."The regular church services in the correctional facilities are well-attended. "60 to 80 people are usually there every sunday in wurzburg."Some take an active part, play the guitar, sing in the choir, contribute texts, perform role-playing games.

A place of distrust

"The services are lively and resemble a family service," says georg ruhsert. But it’s not a family that celebrates together, it’s a forced community. No one has chosen with whom he serves his time in prison. No one can just leave if the others don’t suit them. And everyone knows that the other has also gone a way that was not law-abiding.

Which fellow prisoner can be trusted? Which inmates can be relied on? "The prison is a place of mistrust. You don’t have many friends here", female georg ruhsert. "You have to protect yourself. And be careful what you reveal about yourself."

This distrust is also felt by the chaplain in individual conversations. "Some inmates make sure that what they tell remains really confidential"." Of course the language is confidential. Of course ruhsert does not pass on what he learns. At the same time, he is pleased that the prisoners also deal well with this relationship of trust. "No one has ever told me anything that was problematic."If, for example, he were to learn of planned crimes, of imminent offenses against people and the law – it would not be easy for the pastor.

But he knows the deeds that have led people here, to him, into prison. And it is well spoken about, if the prisoner wants it. There are people who regret what they have done. Who want to take advantage of the opportunity that comes to them when they have served their sentence. But there are others who have no understanding of what they have done – be it a cheat who no longer realizes how he is distorting the facts, or a sexual offender who relativizes his act or talks it down. The father of four children says he finds the latter particularly difficult to deal with. It is language that shows him his limits.

Being a prisoner is an exceptional situation. Ruhsert speaks of an inner need that becomes clear in many individual conversations. Up to 23 hours alone in the cell, there’s plenty of time for reflection. "Some people really think about the crime and about their lives for the first time."The thoughts about one’s own life, the deeds, the victims, but also about the family, can no longer get out of one’s head. "Many only realize what they have done to their families when they are in prison." Some people realize that they liked something different. But the possibilities out of prison are limited.

Whether and how the contact with the family looks, that has the prisoners not in the hand. They depend on the wife, the son, the mother to come to them or write to them. It can’t be forced. A new experience that makes people feel helpless – and makes loneliness even worse.

Corona aggravates the situation

Even those who have visitors have a hard time in corona times. Until now, three visits per month were allowed. Now a prisoner may only receive a visit once a month, for a maximum of one hour, from a maximum of one person – only a child up to 14 years of age may come with an adult. If you have several children, you may not see them for months, even though both of you want to. The visits are strictly regulated: with a mask, separated by a protective screen, touching and hugging are forbidden. "This is often unbearable for the prisoners and increases the pressure they are under enormously," says the pastor. "The situation of many prisoners and their families has been massively aggravated by corona."

Alone, surrounded by people you can’t trust – you could think this is a situation where you lose faith in god. "It’s rather the opposite," is georg ruhsert’s experience. People are searching. They read the bible that is offered to them, ask questions, seek to talk, see life from a new perspective. "Many people perceive faith as an offer to help them cope with life."Time and again, prisoners are baptized. Again and again, the pastors experience that faith lays the roots for regaining a foothold in life. It’s developments that reinforce the 51-year-old’s belief that what he, his colleagues and the church do is important. "In a prison," says georg ruhsert, "i feel i’m in exactly the right place."


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