By Cat Payne, Diocesan Communications Officer
With Prisons Week running from 14 - 20 October, we spoke to the team of chaplains at Surrey’s prisons about how they show God’s love to prisoners and their families and what surprises them most about the role.
Prison chaplaincy work has a huge potential for changing lives, but it can be difficult to explain because it looks different in every prison and for each individual prisoner, and volunteers fill many different roles. A chaplain’s role in prison is primarily to care for the spiritual and emotional well-being of prisoners, and also to help with some aspects of prisoner rehabilitation.
Multi-faith chaplaincy teams work together to create a space where prisoners have the right to practise their faith, and where it is recognised that faith can play a positive role in someone’s life. Chaplaincy services can be a lifeline for prisoners, who often have limited opportunities to spend time in meaningful activities outside their cells.
"What never fails to surprise me is the raw honesty and openness of the prisoners I listen to"
At HMP Send, the Revd Lesley Mason leads the team of Surrey prison chaplains to deliver faith-related provision, pastoral care and other support to prisoners of all faiths and none,
“Love starts with listening, and then responding to their individual needs as best we can. What never fails to surprise me is the raw honesty and openness of the prisoners I listen to.”
Worship is at the heart of chaplaincy activities in prisons and it might not be quite what you’d expect. The Revd Egerton Gbonda describes the worship at HMP High Down as more authentic and vibrant than he could have imagined,
“You might imagine worship in prison as a rather downbeat affair, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. I was surprised to find the prison chapel full of joy and you can see it in their expressions of worship - raising their hands and dancing to the glory of God.
"They are not crushed, and praise their Lord and Saviour exuberantly"
“We walk with them through bereavement issues and family difficulties, and support those at risk of self-harm and suicide. You know the worshippers are troubled, because towards the end of the service a good number of them will willingly come and ask the priest and volunteers for prayer. But they are not crushed, and praise their Lord and Saviour exuberantly, saying to all of us: Through all the changing scenes of life, in trouble and in joy, the praises of my God shall still my heart and tongue employ.”
Several faith-related courses like Alpha or Christianity Explored are offered, as well as non-faith related courses like Living with Loss (bereavement and other major losses), Making Sense of Forgiveness, or Parenting Skills. One of the most powerful courses offered is a Prison Fellowship programme called Sycamore Tree that is run through chaplaincy in several of Surrey’s prisons.
Sycamore Tree is a victim awareness programme that encourages self-understanding and restorative justice principles. Prisoners on the programme look at the impact of crime on victims, family and the wider community.
Often the most confronting part of the programme is when a victim of crime comes in to talk about how crime has affected their lives. Prisoners are given an opportunity at the end of the programme to express their remorse and carry out symbolic acts of restitution – such as writing letters and poems or creating works of art.
Prisoners who have taken part in Sycamore Tree often say it helps them think about how they might make amends or live a more positive life, with comments like:
“I now realise there are people outside who really do want to help me make a fresh start”
“When I came on this course I really didn’t think I’d hurt anybody, but now I understand that I do have victims”.
“It’s the best course I’ve ever done, because it really challenged me to ask myself questions that no-one else had asked me”.
“I now realise there are people outside who really do want to help me make a fresh start”.
One of the most vulnerable points for prisoners is their release and resettling back into the community. Making Connections is a well-established mentoring programme, developed at HMP Send, that has run since 2011 and supported over 500 women leaving prison. Independent analysis has demonstrated a significant reduction in re-offending for those who participate and the programme is now being rolled out to other Surrey prisons.
It helps them to build their self-confidence and reassures them that they wouldn't be alone after release
Financed by local charity The Nazareth Way and accredited by the Mentoring & Befriending Foundation, trained volunteers provide mentoring using tools that are designed to help prisoners plan realistically for the future, improve their confidence in their ability to access support and overcome the problems they will inevitably face. As they leave, Making Connections makes onward referrals to churches and community organisations to provide continued support for ex-prisoners after release.
When asked what they found most helpful about the programme, prisoners mention being able to talk about fears and anxieties in a place where you can be honest. They say it helps them to build their self-confidence and reassures them that they wouldn’t be alone after release.
Could you volunteer to support prison chaplains in Surrey?
"A colleague recently summed it up well saying that listening to their pain and frustration has changed her heart. I would echo that. And the humbling sense of privilege in seeing God at work.”
Prison chaplaincy teams rely heavily on the help of volunteers; whether it’s to visit prisoners who don’t usually get visitors, provide a listening ear to a prisoner at a low ebb, help with one of the courses, provide admin support or simply just to worship with them. The Revd Lesley Mason finds the process of supporting the prisoners at HMP Send as fulfilling for her as it is for them,
“Many prisoners express their appreciation of chaplaincy support, but for me perhaps the better observation is the difference they have made to my life. A colleague recently summed it up well saying that listening to their pain and frustration has changed her heart. I would echo that. And the humbling sense of privilege in seeing God at work.”
If you’re interested in volunteering with us, but are worried about any aspect of working in a prison, please just contact us for a chat and advice.
Our volunteers have said:
“I have found it interesting to use my skills in a different environment, and I’ve enjoyed the challenge of seeing an aspect of life with which I am not familiar”
“Once entering the prison I am aware it is a secure environment but the security training gives me confidence so I don't find it scary!”
Find out more about and get involved with prison chaplaincy