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"Why Focus On Prisoners?"

I sometimes come across people who are less than sympathetic when it come to prison ministry. The thinking goes “Why focus on prisoners? After all, aren't they merely getting what they deserve? Should we not concentrate rather upon the victims of crime?” Now, I can understand this attitude, and of course we should never forget the victims. However, in Matthew 25 Jesus challenges His followers to tend to those in need. He speaks of the hungry, the thirsty, strangers, those in need of clothing and yes, he mentions visiting those in prison. Remarkably He declares “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.” In prison ministry I come across all kinds of people. Some are more receptive to the gospel than others, but I find that God is most definitely at work in the hearts of many inmates.

I have learned over the years not to focus so much on what people may have done in the past, but to realise that God has brought them across my path for a moment in time, and that I should take the opportunity at that moment to share the gospel of Christ with them. In prisons, I come across men who have lost everything and feel that they have had a “wake up call” and want to turn their lives around, as if the Lord is saying to them “Have I got your attention now?” The Bible is full of examples of people who took a wrong turn in life, making bad decisions and yet, by the grace of God were given a second chance. We only have to read of Moses, David and Jonah to name but three, to see how a life can be redeemed and turned around.

Yes, those in prison have often had a dark and nefarious past, but as the apostle Paul says “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Romans 3:23. We may consider that we are not as bad as some, but every one of us needs the grace and mercy of God. If His grace had not been shown to us then none of us would have been saved. I see the encounters I have with prisoners as opportunities to win souls for Christ and see lives changed for His glory.

A Typical Day in Prison Ministry

My day begins around 9:00am as I draw keys at the gatehouse. I then make my way through the various outside gates that take me up to the Chapel building. Moving from any one location to another always involves unlocking and locking gates and doors. When I arrive at the Chapel (or Multi Faith Centre as it is known in the prison) I unlock the outer gate and then the inner door, locking them both again behind me. I then sign in at the office and meet with the team who inform me of the tasks they wish to assign to me that day.

On the Wings

This usually involves me visiting several wings to speak one to one with prisoners. Upon arrival at the wing I let myself in (locking the gates and doors behind me again) and sign in at the office. During these visits as I walk through the wing on the ground floor and on the landing I often get the chance to share the gospel and give my own testimony. Some are very sincere and keen to speak with me of their Christianity and of their desire to attend Chapel, others not so much but we still seek to help them with whatever they may need. I find a lot of the guys to be surprisingly erudite people. (Perhaps this is a little judgemental and I should not be so surprised?) Many times I am able to engage with prisoners of other religions as well, and this can lead to some very deep and searching conversations.

Assessment, Care in Custody & Teamwork

I also look out for vulnerable people who have come to the attention of the prison staff. There is a care planning process throughout the prison service for prisoners identified as being at risk of suicide or self-harm, known as ACCT (which stands for Assessment, Care in Custody and Teamwork) pronounced “ACT.” Whenever an ACCT document is “opened” on a prisoner they are monitored several times throughout the day and night, and prison officers and chaplains seek to have frequent significant conversations with them.

ACCT Processes

In addition to this, regular ACCT reviews are held with the prisoner (usually weekly) before a panel consisting of the Wing Manager, sometimes a Prison Governor, a CPN, and a Chaplain. My visits to the wings routinely involve my attending ACCT reviews or checking up on people who have an ACCT open even though they may not have a review that day. Once everyone is satisfied that the prisoner is in a better state of mind and is no longer a danger to himself, the ACCT document can be closed.

Afternoons in the Chapel

Such a tour of the wings often takes all morning, then it's back to the Chapel building for some lunch. In the afternoon I might be called upon to help a prisoner fill in a request form to either attend the funeral of a loved one or come to the Chapel where they can view a live stream of the service on a prison iPad with an officer present. This can also involve my getting in touch with the grieving family or the funeral director to obtain pertinent information regarding the proceedings.

Coming Alongside the Sad and Grieving

Prisoners can also put in an application to attend the chapel to light a candle for certain personal reasons such as on the anniversary of the death of a close friend or relative. We understand there is no real spiritual significance in lighting a candle but this is a universally understood practice and serves as a useful means of engaging with people in times of sadness and distress. A prison officer will be assigned to escort them down to the Chapel and we will sit and chat and pray with the prisoner simply coming alongside them in their time of need. They will then be escorted back to their wing.

The End of the Day

At the end of the day I sign out again and make my way back through the various gates and doors to hand my keys back in at the gatehouse.

This work can sometimes be quite challenging but it is also very rewarding and it is tremendous to see how the Spirit of God is at work in hearts and lives even in a prison. I count it a wonderful privilege to be able to bring the gospel into these situations and to glorify God in it all.

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