This week (18-24 November) is Prisons Week. It began back in 1975 to encourage prayer within churches and the wider Christian community for the needs of prisoners. It started out as a Roman Catholic initiative, but quickly became an ecumenical observance, seeking to focus attention not only on the needs of prisoners, but on all those involved the field of prison care, prisoners families, victims of crime, prison staff and many volunteers.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams along with other church leaders has given a statement of support:
“One of the most serious aspects of being in prison can be the sense of isolation and even abandonment; and one of the most effective witnesses that can be given to prisoners is the assurance that they are not forgotten. ‘When I was in prison, you visited me’, says Jesus and this tells us two things – that Jesus is already with those in prison, as he is with all who live in loneliness (including the loneliness of self-reproach or self-hatred); and that he is waiting for us there. I hope and pray that this year’s Prisons Week will help us all to connect with the Jesus who waits for us in prison, and that those undergoing imprisonment will feel confident that they are accompanied in prayer and compassion by the Lord and his servants.”
Sometimes with issues of criminal justice I think we spend too much time focusing on those who have committed crimes rather than their victims. When stories blow up in the media, such as the Jimmy Savile case, relatively few minutes of airtime or column inches remember those who have suffered and still have to live with the consequences every day.
Part of the answer to this is restorative justice where those harmed by crime and those responsible for the harm, are brought into communication with each other. It has been proven to be an effective way to hold offenders responsible for their actions giving them an opportunity to express remorse and to give victims a voice. Studies suggest that Restorative Justice approaches can reduce post traumatic stress disorder in victims and, in some cases, motivate offenders to turn away from a life of crime. One study by Cambridge University found that the rate of re-conviction amongst those offenders participating in restorative justice, was reduced by 28%.
It’s therefore good to see that the Christian charity, Prison Fellowship are well-known and respected in prisons for their Sycamore Tree restorative justice programme run by volunteers. In 2011/12 over 2,000 prisoners took part in 113 Sycamore Tree programmes across 36 establishments in England and Wales. Andrew Cross, Governor of HMP/YOI Feltham is one strong supporter:
“I have been a supporter of Sycamore Tree since I first learnt what it had to offer in 2000. I was Governor of an adult prison and quickly realised the tremendous positive impact that it could make on those attending. I am passionate about the support and life chances that we give to young people. Therefore, when I arrived at Feltham YOI, I was extremely pleased to know that Sycamore Tree has a place and purpose here. I intend to continue the support for the programme for as long as I am able to.”
Prison Fellowship is one of a substantial number of Christian charities working with offenders and ex-offenders in this country to turn their lives around at reduce their likelihood of reoffending, the rate of which currently is at 60%. In 2011 almost 46% of adults jailed had at least 15 previous convictions or cautions. It’s a terrible state of affairs and one that David Cameron spoke about back in October. In a speech he said that the Government must “think hard about dealing with the causes of crime” not just the results of crime with more emphasis on crime prevention and priority being given to reducing re-offending. He talked specifically about a “rehabilitation revolution” where charities and private firms will be given the chance to work with all prisoners and the model of payments by results becoming much more widespread.
I thought it would be valuable to hear what two people I know who are very familiar with the prison system think of David Cameron’s proposals and what they consider to be the most effective forms of rehabilitation. One works with the prison service and the other is an ex-offender. Sally (not her real name) works with prisoners on a daily basis. These are her thoughts:
“Interestingly Chris Grayling MP, Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor spoke at the Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) Prison Ministry Conference on October 19th, three days before David Cameron gave his speech. He was saying how voluntary groups were to be really encouraged in their work with ex-offenders and what a difference they made. Unfortunately when asked if any money would be coming their way the question was nicely side-stepped.
“However, it’s good that Chris Grayling recognised how important it is to support people in and out of prison. Youth offenders are a particularly bad statistic, as 70% re-offend.
“The obvious help for prisoners who have a history of reoffending is the knowledge of the love of God and all that comes with it. Beyond that mentorship can be really valuable, preferably set up whilst inmates are still inside so they have visits from their mentor, which increases once they have been released growing into full-blown mentorship. This enables the ex-offender to be encouraged, walked beside, given practical help and have someone who they are accountable to. All this support should lead to an increased sense of self-worth and confidence. There is an importance of the ex-offender being in a relationship with mentor, having a sense of being cared for, valued and loved.
“All this requires people who are willing to come forward to be these mentors. Churches ought to be prepared to take in and walk beside ex-offenders too. But as you can imagine it’s a big job involving lots of people.”
Finny was first sent to prison at the age of 12 and handed a total of 11 years to serve throughout his life of crime before giving his life to Jesus at 19. He now goes into prisons to tell his story. He also led the worship at this year’s HTB Prison Ministry Conference:
“What you have to realise is that most prisoners, especially male ones have grown up in a dysfunctional environment with a lack of family structure. 75% of them have no relationship with their fathers. Consequently many of them suffer from a lack of belonging and affirmation. It’s often only when they discover who Jesus is and the forgiveness he offers that they can begin to find a sense of identity and start to love themselves.
“One of the biggest problems is the lack of support available when prisoners finish their sentence. Because of their criminal record it’s very difficult for them to find work. Very few employers will take you on if you have a criminal record. HTB runs Caring for Ex-Offenders, which does an excellent job at filling this gap by linking those leaving prison with a local church who can provide support as well as mentoring.
“Another big problem is drug dependency. Many ex-prisoners need to get on to drug rehab programmes, but often these can be too short to be fully effective. Most will need at least 12 months to get clean. I used to work with an Organisation that helps get ex-offenders off drugs called Operation Nehemiah. It was originally a fully Christian charity. I had a judge ask me, ‘What is this organisation you’re working with? You need to keep doing what you’re doing because I can see the difference it’s making in these men’s lives.’ But what happened is that the charity needed income and public funding would only be given if they changed their ethos to make it less overtly Christian. That’s what they did and the way they worked had to be altered.
“I am concerned that if more money becomes available to Christian charities working with prisoners they’ll face the same dilemma. I don’t believe forcing charities to hide their Christianity helps anyone. When you see the way someone’s life is completely changed when they experience God’s love, what benefit is there in telling those working with offenders that they can’t talk about their faith?”
I’m still surprised by how many Christians I meet who have been or are involved in prisons ministry in some form, but maybe I shouldn’t be. Jesus spent a lot of time with people considered to be the dregs of his society. Christians in prisons whether they be chaplains or volunteers are just following the example he set:
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” (Matthew 25:34-40)
If anyone needs to hear the Good News of God’s redemptive grace and forgiveness, it’s those who in our eyes have done the greatest wrongs. If the Government wants to get re-offending rates down, it would do well to encourage Christian organisations to carry on the work they are doing with those on the wrong side of the law. It was good to hear of the new Secretary of State for Justice coming to a major church prison conference. Hopefully what he saw and heard will stick with him and he will fully grasp the value of the work done by those who have chosen to follow in Jesus’ footsteps.