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Men without bars

There’s so much potential in prison cells, says Ralph Findlay

Almost 10 years ago Ralph Findlay was moved by God to offer a lifeline to some of the UK’s most vulnerable men.

The stirring’, if you like, happened while Ralph listened to a presentation by Catherine Rohr, founder and CEO of a Texas-based charity set up to support people in prison. Having spotted the untapped potential of inmates, she spoke about initiatives that could help prisoners choose an honest living. And, despite the prison system in the second largest US state being a far cry from the UK’s, Ralph was convinced that he could offer a similar programme to help those with a criminal past reintegrate into society.

BLAST Foundation, the Christian charity Ralph subsequently established, offers inmates and ex-offenders vital training and support, to help free them from the vicious cycles that can result in a lifetime behind bars. As it nears its tenth birthday, a milestone that has been marked by a growing awareness of the insufficient assistance available to prisoners, as well as much-welcomed success stories of lives turned around, Ralph shares that his approach continues to slash reoffending rates.

I became aware of the BLAST Foundation when it joined the Evangelical Alliance last year. For those who don’t know, what does the organisation do?

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BLAST is all about change, changing the lives of people who have been in prison. Our vision – no BLAST graduate will ever reoffend” – sums up our desire to see men freed from the conditions that cause them to commit crime. We believe this change happens by building relationships in prison, through the gate and on into the community.

BLAST is actually an acronym for Business Life And Skills Training’, as we run a course for offenders to help them embrace new ways of thinking about themselves, confront their past, and develop new perspectives on their future. We also teach life and employability skills, for effective resettlement.

All this is done within a cooperative, open and creative learning environment, where relationships are pivotal and valued. Here, students feel confident to plan their future, and they benefit from ongoing mentoring and resettlement support offered by people who they have come to trust. We believe trust is the missing link’ in breaking the reoffending behaviour cycle.

Who or what inspired you to set up BLAST Foundation?

While God inspired me into this ministry, it’d be amiss of me not to mention that I set up BLAST Foundation almost 10 years ago after I heard Catherine Rohr’s story. Speaking at the Willow Creek’s 2008 Global Leadership Summit, she shared her experience of supporting prisoners in Texas through the Prison Entrepreneurship Program, a nonprofit organisation. Her talk really encouraged and motivated me to establish BLAST Foundation.

I must also acknowledge our supporters, because I’m certain that if BLAST were not covered by their prayers, it wouldn’t be approaching its tenth anniversary, nor would it have been this successful. Since 2012 only three per cent of men who have completed our Transform Programme have gone on to reoffend (significantly below the national average – 66 per cent). Additionally, all of our graduates’ are housed upon release, and 90 per cent are in education, training or employment within three months of leaving jail.

What challenges do ex-offenders face when trying to reintegrate into lawful society?

My word, where do I start? First, the system isn’t set up to help resettle prisoners, mainly due to a lack of responsibility from agencies. Add to this, prisons and probation services are underfunded and don’t communicate well, which often results in support being offered too little, too late’. And finally, ex-offenders struggle to access accommodation, employment and income support when they’re out of prison.

So, for instance, coming out of prison on licence’, having served only half their sentence, seems a positive outcome for an ex-offender, but it only shifts responsibility and ownership of their resettlement to other agencies and charities. This system doesn’t help resettle ex-offenders, who are often unable to get or hold onto jobs and aren’t entitled to income support for 5 – 12 weeks after their release.

There are stories of people leaving prison with only £46 and nowhere to go. This seems outrageous.

It’s normal for people to leave prison with £46 or absolutely nothing if they were recalled. It’s also common for people to have nowhere to stay upon release. However, some people do choose to conceal where they’ll live for many reasons, although mainly due to a lack of trust in the authorities.

I’m sure that the various parts of the prison service are doing their best, but we’re observing a lack of a holistic policy or early intervention that guides the men from prison, through the gate and into accommodation and employment (the two most critical factors to reduce reoffending). It is perhaps no surprise that David Gauke MP, as justice minister, is taking a real interest in this area and starting to put more money into reducing reoffending.

BLAST has clearly stepped into this gap.

The men we work with need a new network of people they can trust, people who they believe are on their side and who will support them on their journey – not just in prison but upon release. We commit to be with men for at least 12 months post-release (if they so wish), and in many cases we still work with graduates five years after release. It’s a privilege to do this, particularly as many Christian organisations seem to have scaled back this type of work.

As Christians, we believe that we’re all prisoners of something, until Jesus sets us free. For us, freedom means being able to express the love of God for and to His people. In prison, we are not able to proselytise, so we demonstrate God’s love through our actions and enduring with the system’s shortcomings.

Prisoners are some of the most vulnerable and needy people in society, often caught in a cycle of addiction, debt, poverty and crime. Breaking this cycle is the only way forward for most ex-offenders, which can only be done through God’s redeeming love and grace. As John 8:36 puts it: So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

If BLAST can’t proselytise in prison, how do you share the freedom people are called to in Jesus?

We help inmates strive for physical, mental and spiritual freedom. Physical freedom only occurs upon release, of course, but mental and spiritual freedom can occur whilst we are working with them in prison. As touched on earlier, we help the men define the future they wish to create upon release, regarding family, work, relationships, etc. This can be an incredibly creative and expressive time for them.

Sharing what God has done through His Son is trickier, as we’re not allowed to proselytise in prison, owing to concerns around radicalisation. But we can answer and ask questions. A great opportunity normally arises on the first or second day of each programme: the men tend to say something like, You’re only here because you’re paid to be.” When we say that we’re not paid, that begs the next question: Then why are you here?” This allows us to demonstrate our faith and love for the men we serve; it’s what Jesus calls us to do. Individual conversations about faith, Jesus, and opportunities to pray for them, often follow.

These men want to be free; they want to live in a world without bars — not just the steel bars on the window, but debt, addiction(s), poverty and crime.

Catherine Rohr talked about the untapped potential of prisoners in Texas. Has BLAST seen the same in UK prisons?

For some people this is hard to imagine but it is true. Let me explain. A person sees a market or a gap in a market that they can fill, because they know there’s a need that they can source, fill and satisfy. This is supply and demand. If that person can manage and satisfy the customers’ needs to keep winning repeat business, this is brand/​product loyalty and customer management. 

These attributes are key business skills whether you are a car company, solicitor, accountant, estate agent, fund manager or drug dealer. These skills are transferable and an untapped resource. Being realistic: if your crime is fraud, you will not be an accountant when you’re released, but there’ll be other avenues where you can apply your skills. So, it’s good to think outside the box.

Whose BLAST story’ stands out most?

Ooh, there are so many, but I think the most poignant example is Nikki, the wife of a BLAST graduate who spoke in front of 200 strangers at an awareness event in July 2018. She told them of the struggles she faced whilst her husband was in prison and she raised their four children. She was clear that without BLAST’s help and support, things would’ve been very different when her husband got out. Her testimony brought people to tears, even some hardened ex-offenders.

Then there’s John, who came into prison after retiring. He was from an affluent background; he had been a company director and his wife a medic. His unperceived addiction to alcohol was his downfall. He’s now in his fifth year of sobriety, having seen the affects alcohol has had on his life and his family. I’m privileged to count this man as my good friend, watching him grow as he helps others address their addiction and substance misuse issues.

Another graduate, LB’, a Christian of strong faith, believed that God would help him get his own coach company and he’d take church groups or faith-based schools on day trips or on holiday. He’s a fully licensed coach driver with 15 years’ experience. I met him at the gate of HMP Onley and within five weeks of his release he was working full time. He is still working four years on. This man of God is now reunited with his family. I consider LB my brother, good friend and advisor.

It was also a privilege to be in the baptism pool with David, another graduate, when he committed his life to Christ after some years in prison.

Should the UK church support the rehabilitation and integration of prisoners and ex-offenders?

Again, we are all prisoners of something, until Jesus sets us free. Our volunteers have gained so much from working with the men we work with. We often feel that we go into prison to help the men but, in reality, they help us see our own shortcomings. 

Simply put, yes. The Bible tells us in Isaiah 61:1b to look out for all vulnerable people: He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners…” 

This is what BLAST has been doing for the past 10 years through its prison ministry work, at a time when, as mentioned earlier, there aren’t as many Christian organisations active in this space. Therefore, there is a need for a new generation of Christians who will support the rehabilitation of prisoners through prayer, volunteering, mentoring and giving.

About the author

Naomi joined the Evangelical Alliance in 2018 as editorial content manager. Positions with publishers and within the marketing and communications faculty of a higher education institution, plus stints as a reporter, have enabled the media and cultural studies graduate, who has an NCTJ diploma in newspaper journalism, to hone the necessary skills and qualities to serve members well.

See more from Naomi Osinnowo

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