I was in prison and you visited me
There are a range of ways Christians can support prisoners and the Prison Service, writes Baptist minister Tony Cross
‘They let you out then!’
It’s a rather tedious joke every time I return from a visit to a prison. But prisons are no joking matter, of course. They cost a lot of money and the reoffending rate is too high to claim they do much rehabilitation. It’s not for want of trying.
I visit two prisons on a regular basis. One is a foreign nationals’ prison. The inmates are there because they are near the end of their sentence and are awaiting a decision on their removal/repatriation. This is not to be confused with a Detention and Removal Centre for those whose immigration status is under scrutiny.
The other prison is a core local prison. Its main function is to detain prisoners on remand and sentenced prisoners awaiting distribution. As a result it has a very wide range of residents.
The staff of both prisons are generally a very dedicated bunch trying to do the best they can. Most are disillusioned. The basic problem is that they feel there is not enough of them to keep everyone safe and there are not the resources to provide much rehabilitation. In my experience there are too many days when the staffing level prevents or risks preventing a decent regime. By this I mean time for a shower, a phone home and some exercise in the fresh air together with a ‘meaningful activity’.
There are several ways volunteers can make a small difference. I am engaged in two, one at each prison.
I started by being an Official Prison Visitor. I am allocated a prisoner who has asked for a visitor usually because his friends and family are too far away to visit regularly or even at all. We meet up for an hour to chat about anything the prisoner wants to talk about. That could be religion or football or something about their family. I am not there to preach or teach. Just listen like any friend might. Our conversation is strictly confidential.
In another prison I am a member of the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB). It used to be called The Board of Visitors and has a long history. We visit on a regular basis to ensure the prison is fair and decent. We write an annual report for the Prisons’ Minister, who appoints us, and a weekly report for the Governor. In addition we handle prisoner complaints.
As we are a statutory body, set up by act of parliament and managed by the Prison Service we have the right to go anywhere and talk to whoever we wish. I should add that we need, for personal safety, to take some advice from the officers.
In these two roles I feel I am contributing to the prison regime in terms of the two Kingdom Values of friendship and justice.
There are other ways of being involved. Prison Fellowship is an overtly Christian organisation that supports the work of the chaplaincy. They have two particular projects. At Christmas they distribute Christmas presents to the children of prisoners. They also run, in some establishments, a Restorative Justice programme. Both are excellent and in need of funds and helpers.
Samaritans works within prisons. It supports prisoner listening programs, training the listeners and has telephone help lines available to prisoners.
Going into prisons is not everyone’s cup of tea. What else can people do? They could support Prison Fellowship who produces news and prayer items. A church could contact the chaplain at a local prison for similar material. Some churches will have prison staff as members or be in contact with someone. They could offer all sorts of support.
Prison policy is another matter. In the days of castles the dungeon was called an Oubliette because it was where prisoners were forgotten. We may not use the term but the sentiment has hardly changed. The Prison Service has had a higher profile recently and the Government talks of making significant improvements but delivery is another thing. Christians could make a difference by writing to their MP having got the facts from their local prison chaplain or from Prison Fellowship.
Every prison has an IMB and they produce an annual report that is made public. Christians could get these and use it to ask significant questions of the Justice Secretary and Prisons’ Minister. Prisoners have broken the law and deserve to be in prison but they also deserve to be treated fairly and decently.
One final thought. Ex-offenders, can they find a place in church? Some prisoners do find or re-discover faith in prison. What would your church do to help them sustain their spiritual life?
Tony Cross is a retired Regional Minister who now spends most of his time in activities beyond the local church
Prisons Week - A Week of Prayer runs from 8 - 14 October
See also the work of Spurgeons Children's Charity with families affected by imprisonment