24 April 2015
Prison ministry: giving hope to the hopeless
In August 2011 the London riots began in Tottenham, before spreading to 66 other places across the Capital and beyond. Nine out of 10 of those involved in the riots were already known to the police and those convicted had on average 12 other convictions. Despite what much of the reporting on the riots suggested, this wasn't a phenomenon in its own right – it was a symptom of a much larger issue.
Of those convicted, 75 per cent were under the age of 24, and many came from a fatherless home. An independent panel, convened by the government to explore the causes of the riots, found a link between poverty and those who ended up behind bars for their actions during the period – there was sense of consumerist entitlement, an anger at being left out of the job market and a feeling of being let down by the system.
It was these findings that sparked a new programme by Reflex, a prison ministry social franchise overseen by Alliance member Youth for Christ. They saw a direct correlation between poverty, a lack of aspiration, low self-esteem, broken families, unemployment and a lack of training, and imprisonment. So they decided to do something.
"I think the Church forgets that we are all sinners."
"What we do is provide hope to the hopeless," said Tim Rosier, head of outreach. "We teach them things that mums and dads should have taught us all." The my Life course includes lessons on budgeting, how to make a meal, dealing with emotions and navigating the morals of society.
"What determines whether someone makes the right choices in the heat of the moment is character," Tim said of the life skills this course teaches. "Prisoners respond to us as we offer something that's compelling and engaging and, most importantly, useful," he said. "We are motivated by faith. We want to see transformation."
Evangelical Alliance member Christianity Explored also believe it's personal development that will bring about long lasting change for those stuck in the cycle of crime.
Eight years ago many prison chaplains were using the church edition of the Christianity Explored course, but the charity recognised that it needed to be tailored for those inside who may struggle with literacy and be turned off by formal education.
Steve James was chosen to head this up. Having served four years in prison himself, he was an ideal candidate to develop this course, which is now being carried out in prisons around the world.
"I became a Christian in 1997. I was serving a four year prison sentence, with a background of drug abuse and dealing. I didn't see a future beyond drugs." But while Steve was cleaning a wing in the prison, he overheard someone giving their testimony. "I wasn't even supposed to be there – I wasn't invited to the meeting. But I heard the gospel on the wing about how Jesus could change your life. My life changed from that day."
As an ex-offender, it was hard for Steve to get back into prison to begin trialling the new prison edition of the course, but the Welshman was granted access to Cardiff prison, and was allowed time to work through the Christianity Explored course with prisoners and their chaplains, exploring what worked with the original course and what didn't.
"It was quite academic, and that didn't work, so we've made it reallysimple –very easy, very accessible. You don't have to be able to read."And feedback from both prisoners and chaplains show that it works – so much so that Christian Fellowship International approached them about taking it to 127 countries across the world. A pilot programme began last year called Prisoner Journey, based on the course Steve developed for prisons here in the UK. But it creates different challenges: "We are trying to reach a population of people who have no idea about Christianity," Steve said.
The courses are usually introduced by an event held on the wing, where prisoners are shown a DVD that explores the identity of Jesus and given gifts."
"What determines whether someone makes the right choices in the heat of the moment is character. "
I think every prison around the world is unique. In some of the African countries, when you do an event you have a lot of people who are very desperate. In Brazil and Columbia you have some prisons where the prisoners are running the prisons, so it's difficult."
In the UK, if you want to run an event on a wing you are treated with a lot of suspicion. You have to talk to the governor and say what you are doing and what you're trying to achieve."
So are the officials in UK prisons wary of Christian input? "Governors are usually happy to run these courses," Steve explains. "If you're working with a chaplain that has a good relationship with their governor you're usually fine."
He says what helps with the course they run is it does "exactly what it says". The charity also offers a discipleship course following the initial series to get to know God, so they have the skills to negotiate their Christian life for the rest of their sentence and beyond.
But what can the Church do to help?
Prison Fellowship currently have 2,200 volunteers up and down the country. Volunteering can take several forms, including offering chaplaincy support or writing letters to inmates. The charity is also looking for coordinators to for its Angel Tree programme, which buys and sends presents to the children of a particular prison.
"The hidden victims of crime are the children of offenders," said Gareth Russell, who represents Prison Fellowship. Both prisoners and their families find this programme valuable. "They're delighted that their children have received these gifts," he said. One sent the charity a letter saying: "Over the last two Christmases you have been there for my children when I couldn't be, and I would like to thank you from the bottom of mine and my children's hearts. Your charity is absolutely amazing and you never fail to please or do what you set out to do. While we are away being punished, why should our children suffer over our wrongdoings?"
Assistants to work alongside these coordinators are also needed, along with treasurers for the programmes.
But not everyone has the time to volunteer in prison ministry. All three organisations have asked for prayer for the work they do and those they are working with. They feel the Church could be doing more.
"Jesus said: 'I was in prison and you visited me'. For Jesus, the prostitutes, the prisoners, the widows were all really important," said Steve of Christianity Explored. "Jesus said that's one of the signs that you're my followers. When I was in prison in 1997 nobody wanted to know me. I was only being visited by a Christian organisation willing to give up their time."
Steve said he had lost all hope. "All I looked forward to going out and going back to drugs." But that changed when he listened in to the meeting on the wing he was cleaning. "I went up to the people after and I off loaded. The guy said: 'I don't want to know about what you have done. Christ loves you and I love you'. He said if I wanted to come and live with him I could."
Bringing this gospel to prisons is "powerful", Steve said. "I have heard prison called the dumping ground, but this is part of the great commissioning."
Churches must be willing to accept ex-offenders among their congregations. It's a big challenge, Steve said, but the Church needs to become comfortable with working in their local prisons and then supporting those prisoners on their release.
"I think the Church forgets that we are all offenders –we all fall short of God, we are all sinners. But God is in the business of changing people."
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
Get involved with the work Prison Fellowship does. Volunteer to work at the Angel Tree project, or the other programmes the charity runs.
If you’d like to volunteer with Reflex, you can do so via Prison Fellowship, who handle the application process.
Look into Community Chaplaincies – faith-based organisations providing mentoring to people leaving prison, focusing on encouraging the individual to meet their own goals and build a positive life in the community away from crime. To find out more and find a project near you go to Community Chaplaincy website
Pray for the individuals going into
prisons regularly to volunteer.
Pray that the organisations working
in prisons will continue to be granted
access and funding.
Pray that thousands more prisoners
will be met by these ministries and
give their hearts to God.