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Softening Prison’s Hard Men

During November we are encouraged to remember and pray for prisoners, people in prison. Actually, they are not the only people in prison, the governor, the prison officers and support staff, admin, cooks, cleaners and so on, they all are people in prison and we remember and pray for them all. The chaplaincy is a crucial part of any prison – but what role does it really play, and how important is it to the running of a prison?

Can you imagine knowing that you might have to spend the rest of your life in prison. Imagine a wide, concrete, windowless corridor; it is soul-less, and draughty, and uninspiring. We are talking about HMP Whitemoor, a high security prison near March in Cambridgeshire. Whitemoor is a Category A men’s prison. A “Category A” prisoner is someone who is so dangerous to the public or the police that escape must be made impossible. Less than 1% of the prison population is Category A. Of a population of 90,000, 847 people are deemed in this category. The first priority of a high security prison is to protect the public. There are 6000 prisoners in the high security estate in total. And eight high security prisons scattered around the country.

HMP Whitemoor houses around 450 of the most dangerous men in Britain, and past and present inmates include Jeremy Bamber (who was convicted in 1986 of murdering five members of his adoptive family) and Michael Sams (who kidnapped and murdered 17-year-old Julie Dart in 1991) as well as terrorist extremists.

Most people would rather walk ten miles in the opposite direction than have anything to do with this place or its residents: but for a prison chaplain this is where they spend much of every day, working alongside the men Britain would rather forget.

It is a cheerless place – and it is indeed difficult to imagine what it must be like to wake up in a cell here every day, unsure of whether you’ll ever live anywhere else again or see the light of day ever again. And, while prisons certainly aren’t supposed to be holiday camps, HMP Whitemoor is particularly bleak; and it’s clear that one of the things the chaplains strive to do, is to inject a bit of humanity.

The prisoners are served by a chaplaincy team from different denominations and faiths. The chaplains see their role as listeners. To listen to people’s problems; sometimes they can help, but other times prisoners (or people in prison) just want to offload, and unburden themselves and they can do with a chaplain who is perceived as more neutral than a prison officer. There are so many tensions in prison – prisoners have so little control over their lives, and that means that even tiny things can turn into big issues. A prison chaplain can help keep the place calm and diffuse tension; prisoners who partake in chaplaincy life seem more at ease, calmer
in themselves.

Whitemoor prison

The chapel itself perhaps has something to do with this, with its huge expanse of wooden floor making it different from everywhere else in the prison – it is a special place. Through the chaplaincy, prisoners can attend restorative justice courses where they are encouraged to take responsibility for their actions and crimes, kind of like going to confession or as a prisoner might say, ‘fessing up to stuff ’. The important thing about a restorative justice course is to be truly sorry, and to realise the huge ripple effect that crime has on others. During the course people who have been victims of crimes visit the prison and share their stories. This can be very cathartic and really helps the person who’s been on the receiving end of a crime come to terms with their traumatic experience.

Fundamental to a chaplaincy team ethos is the importance of treating prisoners with proper respect and dignity. Chaplains were among the first inside the prison service to call prisoners by their first names. In fact offering the hand of friendship is what prison chaplains excel at. This is especially true when reaching out to inmates who are segregated from the rest of the prison. They are on their own for at least 23 hours out of 24. They often don’t trust the prison officers but they do trust the chaplains. They often just want to talk about anything – food, books, what they’re studying. The important thing is to remember that though they’ve been sentenced for a terrible crime they aren’t lesser human beings than anyone else. Chaplaincy teams are often very well regarded in the prison system and their contribution to the well being of the prisoners and the running of a prison is not underestimated.

Governors rely on the pastoral care they offer and they are good at not judging the men in their care – they are there to serve not judge; society has already judged them with a prison sentence. The challenge once inside is change and reform. Prison chaplains often say that they don’t meet bad people in prison. Meaning, yes they meet lots of people who have done very bad things. But they don’t meet people who they have given up on. Nobody is beyond help, recovery or redemption.

They understand that many different things come into play. It might be lust or jealousy or greed, resentment and anger. They realize that anyone of us could find ourselves in prison and but for God’s grace go we. The tabloid press can exploit the public mood and put out a narrative that prison is a soft option and that we should lock them up and throw away the key. Chaplains often say too prisoners quite often put on a front during the day or when they are with their peers etc. But have no doubt that even the hardened of prisoners sheds tears when they are alone in their cell.

Bible Alive readers have a great sense of compassion for prisoners. Compassion or mercy doesn’t mean they don’t understand the need for proportionate punishment but it does mean they understand that reform and change is always possible and mercy triumphs over judgement. Prison is a very lonely place to be and everyone – staff and prisoner alike – deserve our support and prayers. Bible Alive readers don’t look at people in prisons as being any different from themselves. It could be them, or their son or daughter, grandchild or friend. ‘There but for the grace of God go I’, and in every prisoner, in a mysterious way we meet Christ.

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