Hope for prisoners
For most of us, prisons are fearful places we don't like to talk about. But several Alliance member organisations are actively involved with prisoners both when they're behind bars and after their release. Sarah Scott of Daylight Christian Prison Trust and Richard Brooker of Langley House Trust write about the challenge facing the Church...
From darkness to light
Stephen found himself serving a prison sentence for four years when he was caught dealing drugs. After a 10-year downward spiral, during which he became addicted to heroin, he had lost all hope. Behind bars, he saw no way out of the life he had become so familiar with and knew that without help he was likely to end up back in a cell not long after release from prison.
It was at this point of desperation that Stephen met a prison visitor who introduced him to Jesus Christ. Stephen became a Christian and after his release he was supported by a Christian-run project that helped him tackle his addiction, obtain a degree in sociology and secure employment. Stephen is now working with Daylight to share the Good News with other prisoners so that they too can see their lives transformed.
Stephen is just one of the 96,000 prisoners in the UK who Daylight seeks to reach with the Gospel and to support after release as they settle back into a community. With the largest prison population in Western Europe, the Church in the UK has a huge opportunity to reach an often forgotten group of people.
We often spare little thought for those behind bars, but lives are being transformed from darkness to light. Speaking of the work going on in prisons, one prison chaplain said, "It is a reminder that the church 'inside' is part of and not separate from the Church outside."
As some 52 per cent of the prison population in the UK claim to be Christians, many offenders are grateful for the time that prison visitors take to talk with them, explain the Bible and write to them when they are often written off by their families and friends on the outside.
And the effects of incarceration go beyond the prison gates. Among prisoners, 65 per cent have a numeracy level expected of an 11-year-old and half of them lack the basic skills required for employment. This makes it extremely difficult for ex-offenders to rebuild their lives after release, so many give up without hope of a future.
Meanwhile, prisoners over the age of 60 are the fastest-growing age group inside, and many have given up hope of ever being released. For those who do get out, many deliberately offend because it is safer in prison than trying to rebuild their whole life.
Even if churches can't get involved inside prisons or with exoffenders, they can still pray for and support the work going on behind bars in the "invisible church" inside. Christians know that there is one Gospel that can transform lives, and there are stories to prove this in prisons from Scotland to the South coast.
Breaking the cycle
It was almost a year ago that Darren came to live at Langley House Trust in Bradford. His aims were to remain crime-free and drug-free and he wanted to build on his counselling experience. Successful rehabilitation now also had an added edge for Darren, as being granted supervised access with his 14-year-old daughter, who had been taken into care, was dependent on positive reports from both the staff and his probation officer. Langley has formed a housing association to help churches provide resettlement support for ex-offenders and the homeless. The main aim is to help those in prison break the cycle of re-offending, working with churches across the country to provide buildings and professional management services to help those at the margins of society.
Leaving prison after a significant time inside can be almost as daunting an experience as entering prison in the first place. Many exoffenders have no family to turn to, and their only friends were often involved in the very crimes they are looking to leave behind.
Now 39, Darren's story is not unusual. He started using alcohol at 13 to cope with his troubled family life, then moved onto hard drugs. His first conviction occurred in 1989, aged 18, and his last was in 2007. He described himself as suicidal when he arrived in prison for a sevenyear sentence. It was a long haul, with many hard lessons to learn, but gradually things began to look up.
The great news is that Darren recently moved into his own flat. He has remained crime free since his release, and last June he was removed from the prolific offender register. Things haven't always gone to plan, but Darren is now able to use the skills he has learned to make better decisions.
"The care and support I received at Langley House was just what I needed," Darren says. "I have worked hard in the project, especially on creating the pond in the front garden. I also know I am hard work at times, but the staff are well able to handle me. They are always there to listen and though sometimes I don't like their answers, I know they are right."
Last year Langley helped almost a thousand people to make a fresh start in life. "When working alongside ex-offenders we need all the prayer, volunteers and support we can get," says Langley's Chief Executive Rev Steve Robinson. "We have a saying, 'My history does not define my destiny.' It is loosely based on the Lord's words to the woman caught in adultery in John 8, 'Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more.' Our aim has always been to see people set free from a life of crime. It's God's work we're about and we need churches to get involved too."