Hebrews 4:16 (ESV)
Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Whilst researching for these #PrisonWeek blogs and interviews, I have encountered some incredible organisations, individuals and charities.

Alongside the employed workers, there are many people who volunteer their time – writing letters, visiting prisoners, helping at support groups, praying with and for prisoners and their families…among other things!  

Perhaps reading that fills you with some understandable apprehension about the idea of going into such a different environment. Tomorrow we hear from Craig who shares a little of how he felt as a volunteer going through the prison gates for the first time and what happens the other side, as well as some of the unexpected moments of joy he encountered. 
In our conversation, Bex also assured me that although she was nervous at first, she has never felt unsafe inside the prison. Each person I spoke to also reiterated to me quite how possible it is to grow in relationship with the prisoners, recognising that we can share moments and find common ground regardless of where we’ve come from or what situation we’re in:

“I think sometimes we can think of people whose life doesn’t look like ours as so different to us that we would never be able to relate to anything that they relate to. And actually, we’re all so much more similar than we realise…”

Perhaps it would help to widen our perception of prisoners to recognise that commonly the reason for being in custody is not a premeditated evil as is often portrayed in the media, but a culmination of circumstance and many separate decisions. It is thought at the moment that only 75 out of the 92,500 people in prison will remain there for their whole life, while the rest will be reintegrated into local communities and wider society.

During his experience of being with the chaplaincy team, Craig saw people who love Jesus, but he was challenged thinking about what welcome those same people would receive should they arrive at the door of our churches. He is right to wonder! Relationships grown within the walls and which continue after the individual leaves prison have a massive impact on the life of that individual. I mentioned in the previous blog post the rate of reoffending also being linked to this support, or lack of it.
Bex and Jill talked about the loneliness of the prisoners without external support and shared with me stories of how being alone had dramatically affected individuals’ situations when they were released. Being without trusted relationships limits their options of where to stay which often leads to people sheltering in dangerous situations. This, in turn, leaves them vulnerable and more likely to either fall back in with a previous group of people, and therefore usually return to previous activities, or out of desperation fall back on a system they know will provide safety and care for them – three meals a day inside the prison.  

Junction42, like other organisations such as PACT (Prison Advice and Care Trust), provide wide support for individuals, forming relationships of trust inside the prison which can be continued after they leave. This is from their website:

Junction 42 works in partnership with prison Chaplains, running various short courses to help individuals engage with the Christian faith in prison. These courses, such as Alpha for Prisons, allow people in prison to explore key questions about Christianity.
For those who have a faith, we provide discipleship groups to grow and nurture individuals, building them up to be the people they were made to be and pastorally supporting them during their time in prison. Junction 42 also supports the Chaplaincy in their provision of Sunday services and one-off events as they seek to reach out to the prison population.

[We aim to] build relationships while individuals are inside and then also maintain those relationships outside, increasing stability and providing support during the chaotic time of being released from prison.

Junction 42 recognises the creative potential of those that we work with. We have developed our creative engagement programmes to release the talents and gifts that individuals have and allow others to see the fruits of these gifts.
Junction 42 runs enterprise programmes in prisons, enabling individuals to gain experience in creating, and running, a business. These programs encourage the entrepreneurial spirit that is evident in those in prison.
Junction 42 runs offence disclosure workshops, job clubs and 1:2:1 mentoring sessions to support those with criminal convictions in overcoming the barriers that they face in gaining employment. We deliver job clubs in partnership with Christians Against Poverty and Clean Sheet. 

For those who have not been within the prison walls, there is often still the feeling of having lived a sentence. The PACT website recognises that “coping with a loved one’s sentence can be a daily struggle…” Societal stigma, the financial and emotional effect on a house hold and strains on family relationships (among other aspects) play a massive part in the breakdown which often occurs between the prisoner and their family.

I wonder who is in your church family? Who is in your local community? Who is in your workplace, at the school pick up, on the bus with you?
I wonder what we, as individuals and as the wider church, are doing to support and love them well?

If you would like to explore this further, here are some links to excellent resources and organisations here in the North East:

Welcome Directory
http://www.welcomedirectory.org.uk/
Could your church be a safe place for ex-offenders to continue to grow in their faith and find a church family after prison? Adding your church to this directory would help people find you!

Junction 42
https://www.junction42.org/
(see blog for overview of their work, working with churches across the North East)

NEPACS (North East Prison After Care Society)
http://www.nepacs.co.uk/page/homepage
Nepacs run most of the visitors centres at the prisons in the Diocese, with play workers and family support. They also organise many other things before and after release from prison. 

NAOPV (National Association of Prison Visitors)
http://www.naopv.com/Interested1.htm
If you would like to be an Official Prison Visitor, visiting those who see no-one else from outside the gates, this is the site for you.

Clean Sheet
https://cleansheet.org.uk/about-us/
Jobs for ex-offenders: If you’re an Employer of any size and could consider our Clean Sheet members for your vacancy or training position – join our exclusive Employer Directory. 

Open Gate NE
http://www.opengate-ne.org.uk/
Registered charity providing mentoring and befriending support to women offenders leaving HMP & YOI Low Newton, Durham, and who are returning to the North East of England.