October sees Prisons Week (www.prisonsweek.org), a reminder to Christians to pray for all those affected by crime and imprisonment. More than 80,000 people are incarcerated in the UK at any one time, but it is very easy for those of us ‘outside’ to forget about these members of our society, as well as the officers, education and care workers, visitors and other members of the prison community – and the dedicated clergy and lay people who minister as chaplains and as chaplaincy volunteers. The Diocese of Lichfield has one of the highest numbers of prisons of any diocese of the Church of England, and whenever I visit any of them I am struck by the intense, isolated and often pressured atmosphere in these environments. Ministry in such situations is immediate, costly, and can be very demanding; it can also make dramatic differences in the lives of broken people. If prison life seems strange, distant and frightening to many of us, we should remember that for the earliest Christians it was often a present reality: ‘Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them’, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews wrote (Hebrews 13.3).
Churches and Christians outside can build a sense of connection with those inside in several ways. It is good certainly to learn more about the realities of prison life in order to inform our prayer and attitudes, to go beyond simplistic headlines and slogans in order to understand some of the real challenges facing people in our criminal justice system. The Prisons Week website, for example, has some good resources and links to help with this, and of course prison chaplains and visitors can speak powerfully from their own experience. I am impressed by the number of faithful church members who give of their time, energy and wisdom in supporting the work of chaplaincies and other prison departments as volunteers, helping some of the most helpless members of our society with friendship, encouragement and skills. And of course there can be great opportunities for individual Christians and churches to be involved at what can be the most challenging points in prisoners’ lives: their release from prison. In our diocese, I am proud of the Yellow Ribbon Community Chaplaincy, Yellow Ribbon – Community Chaplaincy (yellowribbonuk.org.uk), offering faith based support to people looking to change their lives by breaking patterns of criminality.
Another way in which churches can fruitfully engage with the criminal justice system is through hosting Community Payback projects. As part or a whole of their sentence, some people will be given orders to perform a certain period of unpaid work in a community setting. Such schemes are overseen by the Probation Service, who are very keen to look for partnerships with churches (and other faith groups) in offering suitable situations for this. Supervision is provided by probation officers, and the practical benefits for churches can be considerable – for example, in clearing or restoring churchyards or other areas of land; in redecorating or repairing halls or other buildings; in assisting with the setting up and running of Places of Welcome. Beyond the material results, though, there can be the opportunities to build new relationships of friendship, trust and appreciation with people for whom those values have often been in short supply. In one village, for example, a group of women in the parish started providing tea and buns for a group of young men working in the churchyard on a community payback scheme – a fitting response from what I often think should be renamed the ‘Diocese of Cake’. Our own Transforming Communities Together (tctogether.org.uk) can advise on this, as can local probation offices.
Whatever feels the right way for you or your church to engage with Prisons Week and all it stands for, my expectation is that you will find it an opportunity to deepen and enkindle your faith as well as to support and encourage people whose needs can be acute. Those of ‘outside’ cannot and must not forget those ‘inside’; and when we take the time and the confidence to build links, we will find our lives enriched in many unexpected ways.
Rt Revd Michel Ipgrave, Bishop of Lichfield
Bishop Michael will be joining the local MP and others at a special #PrisonsWeek event in Shrewsbury on Saturday 15 October