This week is anti-bullying week and inter-faith week. It’s probably some other week I’ve not noticed yet too, but I do know that it is definitely Prisons Week.
This is because my church is heavily involved in prison ministry. It’s not a huge church, but it has teams working in our local prison as well as further afield in prisons around the country. One of my best friends was first sent to prison at the age of 12 and was handed a total of 11 years to serve before giving his life to Jesus at 19. Finny now goes into prisons with his band to play gigs to tell his story of complete transformation through God’s power and grace. He also led the worship at this year’s Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) Prison Ministry Conference. You can read his story here.
There are plenty of dire statistics when it comes to those in our prisons. For example, there are 160,000 children in England and Wales with a parent in prison. This is two and a half times the number of those in care and over six times the number of those on the Child Protection Register. 7 per cent of children will experience their father’s imprisonment before they leave school. In 2006 more children were affected by the imprisonment of a parent than by divorce.
Reoffending rates in particular are causing the Government a big headache. Currently over 60 per cent of those who serve terms of less than 12 months will reoffend within a year. For young people and young adults the figure is over 70 per cent. I’ve asked Finny to give his thoughts on this:
“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.'”
One of the reasons why Chaplains and Christian groups are so accepted in prisons is that the value of what the Christian faith can offer to those whose lives are a mess is fully appreciated. It provides hope and new beginnings for those who have got so much wrong and find themselves in a pit of darkness.
There’s been plenty of talk recently about the role of the church in serving the poor and tackling poverty. This is a very important calling, but there is much more that the Church can and should be doing. Restorative justice and redemption are on the list too. Once more the Church has the tools and a message that the Government cannot provide on its own. This goes for offenders, but also the victims of their crimes. 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. 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%.
Other Christian charities such as Caring for Ex-Offenders aim to reduce reoffending by reintegrating ex-offenders into society through the local church. Sally who works with Finny in prisons and spoke at the recent HTB Prison Ministry Conference has this to say:
“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.”
Knowing that each one of us is in need for forgiveness because of our sin, makes the concepts of compassion and mercy a reality for all Christians. As the hymn, To God be the Glory goes:
O perfect redemption, the purchase of blood,
To every believer, the promise of God;
The vilest offender who truly believes,
That moment from Jesus a pardon receives.
Jesus spent a lot of time with people considered to be the dregs of his society. He talked about proclaiming freedom for the prisoners and visiting them. If anyone needs to hear the Good News of God’s redemptive grace and forgiveness, surely it’s those who in our society’s eyes have done the greatest wrongs. But if the Church doesn’t offer that message of salvation along with practical action to them, then who will? It was through a miracle of God’s love that Finny’s violent heart was radically changed, but it was because of the Christians meeting him as he left prison who gave him care and support that he was able to make a fresh start. Others don’t get that chance at such a vulnerable moment. Another inmate who Finny knew had become a Christian through an Alpha course in prison. On his release he was met by an old acquaintance who gave him a packet of heroin. Some time later he was dead from an overdose.