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01 September 2009

That moment of release

That moment of release

For the last 12 years, churches around Britain have been running Alpha courses in prisons, reports Hazel Southam. Today, the courses run in over 70 per cent of Britain's jails and the effect has been astounding. The normal re-offending rate is high, as two-thirds of all prisoners are back in prison within two years of their release, half within 12 months. But early findings show that the re-offending rate among those who've done the Alpha course is just 22 per cent.

Until he went on the Alpha course, John F was another re-offending statistic. The 33-year-old grew up in Barnstaple with a childhood marked out by "rebellion and anger".

First jailed in his teens for aggravated burglary and bodily harm, he moved on to drug dealing. "There are a lot of people that I've hurt, emotionally and physically," he says. In his own words, here's how God put his life back on track...

When I went in on my last sentence, it was as if God put a mirror in front of me. I could see who I was for the first time, and I didn't like it. I've always been very spiritually aware; I have always been fascinated with truth.

I was up a mountain and remember saying, "God, whoever you are, you're out there, show me who you really are. Reveal yourself to me." Then I packed up my stuff and came down.

Two or three weeks later I began a new sentence. It was like a blessing in disguise, as if God was hearing that prayer and answering it, which is what blessing is. He took me away from the fast lane of life and put me in a place where I had to be still.

God took me from the fast lane and put me in a place where I had to be still

Part of that "stilling", the only thing that I can really liken it to, was like an operating table. It hurts, and every once in a while you want to get off the table and run around but God says, "Be still so that I can transform you."

I'd never thought of reading the Bible when I was outside. I never thought that truth could be so close, like a Bible in your hand. So when I was made to be still in that prison, and there was a Gideon's Bible there, [I read it].

I'd heard lots about the Bible because my friend and partner in crime had been talking about it. He had become a Christian about a year and a half before. That caused me to start reading the Bible.

At first I was in Exeter prison. Another Christian told me that there were some onfire Christians in HMP Dartmoor who would be able to tell me more about God. So I put in for a transfer.

Alpha helped me to grow, which was like spiritual milk, a little meal. I remember leaving some of those worship sessions feeling exhausted but not being able to sleep - it was that kind of high. I can remember other people's experiences, grown men breaking down and crying, men changed - tough men scared.

The biggest ways in which the church helped me was through letter-writing, providing resources, Bibles, tapes and so on. I was sent a Bible from someone in a church in Devon. That was the most precious gift that anyone ever gave me while I was in prison. Another gift that encouraged and helped me develop was a guitar given by Holy Trinity Brompton. I was able to start leading the worship in prison.

The most critical or vital time in an inmate's walk with God is that moment of release: that someone is there at the gate. The only person to meet them at the gate the majority of the time is Satan. If there's no one there to take them in and give them a chance, or a blessing, they have no hope.

When I came out, someone from Holy Trinity Brompton met me, which was quite profound. He brought family. Lots of these guys have no family. But [I was] met at the gate and driven to a house where I had a roof, food and clothes provided for me. I didn't have to steal for food. That's a huge deal.

John was released from prison in 2001 and is now married with three children. He has moved to Suffolk where he is involved in his church's worship team and is developing a farming project that seeks to provide men coming out of prison with accommodation, training, employment and discipleship. alpha.org/prisons

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