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franciscan - September 2005

The Society of Saint Francis, 2005

Signs of Hope

Alison Tyler

I am writing this just after Easter and am surrounded, not only by the walls and wire of HMP Wormwood Scrubs but also by all the sights and sounds of an English spring in full leaf, flower and song.  We are still singing Alleluia on Sunday mornings in Chapel and the glory of the Resurrection is still resonating in heart, mind and spirit.  There are signs of hope all around even within the prison walls and though they are often small they are also vibrant with possibility for the future.

It is a source of continual delight and surprise to me how many of our prisoners practice their faith, as they are entitled by law to do, whilst in prison.  Very few of our prisoners register as having no faith at all (fewer than 17%), all are offered the chance to worship and many do so with an attentiveness and commitment that I have not often found outside.  Cynics will always say that it is merely a chance to get out of their cells, and not any measure of commitment.  However, once exposed, or re- exposed, to the faiths that they may have dropped out of, surprising numbers of men want to learn more, to follow it up and to be introduced into a supportive faith community when they are released.  The disappointment is often that so few faith communities outside have the confidence to want to welcome them back.

A further sign of hope is the present focus of effort within the prison and probation services on resettlement, which is the umbrella under which prison chaplains are seeking to develop Community Chaplaincy projects.  These are projects which seek to make the links between prisoners being released, their local faith communities, and volunteer mentors from those communities to give support and help in the early days following release.  It is, we hope, a way of giving faith communities the confidence and the resources to enable them to welcome ex-offenders back.  We are always happy to offer support and advice to faith groups who want to offer welcome, support and hospitality to ex-offenders.  In Swansea, Leeds and Feltham to name only three, voluntary funding, local authority money and government funding has been found to start up these exciting new ventures, which should make a real difference to men and women leaving prison with few social resources.  The links are made from within the worshipping communities in the prisons, based on connections that the chaplains are making with local faith groups.  The most hopeful sign about this work is that the projects are all multi-faith in scope and can be accessed by all.  It is a real and practical example of faith communities working together for the good of all our prisoners.

On Tuesday mornings we have a Communion Service at Wormwood Scrubs, with an extended ministry of the word so that we have the chance to discuss the readings, rather than hear a sermon.  Up to 40 prisoners have come for that discussion.  The really exciting thing about this is the thoughtful and reflective contributions that the men make.  They have obviously thought long and hard about some of the issues they raise and are keen to share their insights or receive new ones.  They do not get any incentives offered other than the chance to talk about the faith, to receive Communion and at the end, if there is time, to have a cup of coffee.

As a Christian Chaplain it is a real sign of hope for me that we are working well together with other faith groups to meet as many religious and spiritual needs as we can.  We do see ourselves as being both at the leading edge of ministry and at one of the cutting edges of collaborative ministry, out of which real multi-faith working can grow.

In an increasingly secular world it is another real sign of hope that we are accepted as valuable, useful, trustworthy and integrated into such a secular organisation as the Prison Service.  The staff at Wormwood Scrubs welcome us and use us themselves if they have need of spiritual or pastoral care.  We are known as confidential sources of support and friendship in an often lonely and very stressful job.

Chaplains are part of all sorts of multidisciplinary teams.  We help to provide bereavement support for staff and prisoners, and a comprehensive support system for those at risk of self-harm.  As an integrated part of the prison community we collectively contribute to work to reduce drug dependence, facilitate all kinds of resettlement projects, serve on internal committees dealing with a range of issues and assist with drawing up release plans for potentially dangerous men who are about to be released.  Our distinctively Christian or faith-based perspective is seen as valuable and appropriate in many different situations - a recognition perhaps of a more holistic view of the whole person taking shape within public services.

Speaking to colleagues it is enormously hopeful that so many of them find the work so rewarding, interesting and even fun.  We are in a situation where there is often bereavement, pain and/or violence, meeting very disturbed and dysfunctional people on a regular basis and yet have no difficulty in motivating ourselves to come into work.  The people that we meet are often strangers in a foreign land who have come here and offended, as a result of poverty and desperation, rather than from any deliberate criminal intent, sometimes not knowing that their actions are regarded as criminal in this country.  There are also many who have multiple experiences of social deprivation, substance abuse, and mental health problems.  It is a sign of great hope that Church, society and the Prison Service are becoming able to see these as issues to be addressed, rather than seeing them as matters for retribution alone.  There is still a long way to go, but rehabilitation and the renewal of life are becoming real aims of the Service, no longer just the aspirations of the few.

As chaplains, we know that we will generally find a high level of mutual care and support amongst our colleagues, a shared desire to serve in the community that we have been placed in, and a completely unlooked-for level of appreciation from those prisoners with whom we work.  This would seem to be clear evidence that the Holy Spirit is at work somewhere in the ministry that we share.  For we are each (usually) aware that it is never 'my ministry' that we are engaged in, but our part of God's ministry that is unfolding in our work daily. f

Alison Tyler is an Anglican Chaplain at Wormwood Scrubs Prison.


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