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24 April 2015

Unlocking potential, transforming lives

Unlocking potential, transforming lives

Castle Huntly Open Estate near Dundee is Scotland's only open prison with an emphasis on preparing inmates for release into the community through a focus on enhanced personal responsibility, job readiness and positive citizenship. We sent Kieran Turner behind bars to interview the Rev Anne Stewart, the local prison chaplain. He found out how prison chaplaincy is making a difference in helping the Scottish Prison Service (SPS). Fortunately they let him out to update us on what he found… 

What does an average day involve?
Haha – an average day! Maybe it's more straight forward to talk about an average week, though even then every day can be different to what we plan. As chaplains we run a number of regular activities including Café Monday – a pub without the alcohol, Prison Fellowship on Tuesday and Alcoholics Anonymous on Wednesday. On a Sunday I'll also run a service in the afternoon for any inmates who want to attend. But the regular activities are only part of the story. We operate our new centre, The Shack, as a drop in during the day so inmates, staff and anyone else can come and talk to us whenever they like. We find we are trusted by inmates because we are not part of the authority structures and by staff because they see the value of the service we provide. Additionally, we will spend time in different parts of the prison informally chatting to inmates and staff and on a Sunday a number of our inmates have visited our church as part of the weekend leave programme.

Why did you end up doing this?
It's quite funny really and sounds very unspiritual. At the time we had small children and with my husband in parish ministry it wasn't right or practical for me to be based in a different church. My husband saw this job and encouraged me to apply. Although I actually applied late I somehow ended up getting it. I vividly remember being on holiday shortly afterwards and having a strong sense that this was exactly the right job – it felt like coming home when I returned to work. Very quickly I went from not having any idea I might end up doing prison chaplaincy to being totally content this was where God had called me. And seven years on now I wouldn't change it for the world.

What are some of the biggest positives and challenges of your work?
One of the biggest positives is meeting the people, strange as that may sound in a prison. One of the things I've really learned is that human beings on the inside of prison are basically the same as those on the outside. We're all made in the image of God and all fallen. We're all capable of great evil, it is perhaps just a bit more obvious in a prison context. What this means is that many of the men I work with know their lives are broken – if they weren't broken they wouldn't be here – and this opens up opportunities to talk with them about redemption, forgiveness and transformation and the good news of the Jesus within all that.

Last year at an Alliance event in Edinburgh, Kenny MacAskill, the then justice secretary, made the case for the positive contribution of prison chaplains and other Christians working with offenders to help reduce re-offending.

What more can we do?
Churches can do so much. Whether it is volunteering to work in prisons through Prison Fellowship or supporting those who are leaving prison once they are in the community. We often get asked to help when SPS are aware there are no support networks for offenders who are leaving prison and it is wonderful to work with Caring for Ex-Offenders and local churches to see support networks established.Caring for Ex-Offenders has recently started working in Scotland and gives ex-offenders a mentor and support as they reintegrate into the community. In England they even meet prisoners at the gate and that's something I would love to see here. In our own church inmates often visit on a Sunday as part of weekend leave and the church has provided a wonderful welcome with many of them serving on the tea and coffee rota. It's important for churches to consider in advance how they will respond to those who have been in custody, but as Philemon reminds us offenders can change. As Christians we all know what it is to be redeemed from sin and offending behaviour ourselves – working in prisons helps us to pass that on and see lives positively transformed.

If you've enjoyed reading about Anne's work, then visit eauk.org/idea for more on what it's like to be a prison chaplain, as well as an interview with Scott, who has changed his life around since spending time with chaplains inside prison.

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