From bikie to prison chaplain: the priest offering comfort in our harshest jails
Reverend Rod Moore with an inmate at Silverwater prison. Photo: Nick Moir
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When Rod Moore sits down with inmates, some of whom are coming off drugs or wearing their prison greens for the first time, he knows better than most how they are feeling.
Growing up in a broken home, the Anglican priest ended up on Sydney's streets at 15.
He developed a fierce drug addiction – mainly heroin but he didn't discriminate – and rode with an outlaw motorcycle gang.
"I had all my tattoos removed when I left the club back in 1975," he said as he pointed to faint scaring on his arms. "In those days you could leave a club but you can't now."
It is hard to imagine today that, Reverend Moore, a bespectacled, softly spoken 62-year-old man, did his own stint in the old Parramatta prison years ago.
But it is this life experience and absence of judgment that has seen NSW Corrective Services' head prison chaplain help many inmates over the course of his lengthy career.
"When I first started in jails 23 years ago, I would go into church services and inmates would ask me about something and I would tell them a little bit of my story," he said from Silverwater's Correctional Complex. "That would give me a good in and a connection.
"But after a while I stopped telling the story as some people would say, 'you know the chaplain Rod used to be a biker'.
"It doesn't take long when you are sitting with an inmate – whether they are a biker or a drug addict or whatever – when they start sharing their story or their addiction, they pretty quickly know you know what it is like."
Prison Chaplain Rod Moore. Photo: Nick Moir
NSW has the largest number of prison chaplains in the country, with 44 full-time and 40 part-time chaplains providing support to inmates regardless of religious denominations.
From Saturday up to 300 prison chaplains from around the world – including the United States with its high incarceration rates and the over crowded cells in Africa – will gather for the International Prison Chaplain Conference in Lane Cove.
They will share their experiences of providing support to inmates and jail staff grappling with grief, stress, sickness and loss around the world.
Steve House, a former Kings Cross doorman who left the golden mile and found God, has been helping inmates at the Metropolitan Reception and Remand Centre (MRRC) since 2004.
"[We talk about] everything from where the body is, where the money is buried," he joked.
But mandatory reporting guidelines apply to prison chaplains, Mr House pointed out.
"If we are starting to get in a dodgy area, I will say straight up 'mate if I get called to court, and I am not a dobber, but if I am asked a straight up question, I am not going to lie'," he said.
It takes trust and time to build connections with inmates, who appreciate someone independent of state-employed staff to talk to, chaplains say.
"This is a remand centre so people are getting straight off the truck," said Mr House, a burly bloke who greets inmates with a hearty hand shake.
"This is very much a crisis management place.
"If you do end up in jail, you've pretty much ended up as low as people can go."
One MRRC inmate, who has been in remand limbo for more than two years, knows the feeling.
"[Chaplaincy] helps a lot because realistically, when you first come off the street, everything is tough," said the man, who is on drug-related charges. "You think the world is coming to an end."
Prison chaplains are also brought in to help dispel inmate tensions and deal with deaths in custody.
Reverend Moore said he had been in situations where inmates had been stabbed and assaulted around him as he tried to instil calm in difficult times.
"[Chaplains] have free reign in the jail. Because it's all about trust, about confidentially and it's about de-briefing people," Reverend Moore said.
The prison chaplain conference runs from September 19 to 24.