It is Prisons Week across the United Kingdom. In its 40th year, this week aims to bring together churches and individuals in focusing their prayers on those affected by the criminal justice system. Each day there is a prayer for a specific group of people who find their lives altered by prisons in some way, as well as a wider prayer for the whole week.

Sometimes there is a perception that it is a small percentage of the population who are affected by prisons. Across the UK, there are approximately 92,500 people in prison (Summer 2018). Here in Durham Diocese, we have six prisons – five for men and one for women. Together they house approximately 3,900 individuals.  If we presume that each person in prison has had a direct effect on, at least, a small group of their own family members, their victim and the victims’ family and friends, it is easy to see how this system is directly related to the lives of many people across the area and beyond.

In my own life, I have seen the inside of prison visiting areas on multiple occasions and know of the difficult, continued conversations which happen within families and wider circles. The unanswered questions, the defensive reactions, the broken relationships and trust and often the deep sadness. But I have been speaking to some of the people who see the other side, who spend their days working within this system and working through these emotions and hurts with both individuals and families.

Over the next few days, we will hear some of the voices of those and how their faith affects their perspective and actions towards the prisoners they meet. It has been a pleasure to hear of the joy, creativity and blessing they’ve found in their workplace.

A couple of the people I spoke to are from Junction 42, a Christian organisation which works across the North East, supporting individuals whilst they are in prison, as they leave and as they build up their lives outside the gates. One of the Outreach Workers, Bex, described the necessity to have “thick skin, and soft hearts” in their roles. She has been in the post for three years and has developed a real fondness for the women she spends time with. Chatting through what their role is and how they show love inside the prison walls, her colleague Jill joked “sometimes we’re the only ones who want to be in there!”
But something about these two comments struck me. The Christians I spoke to who work within the walls are following the same vocation: “it’s about taking that hope and being a bit of light in quite a dark place”.

Both Tim (Chaplain in HMP Durham) and Bex spoke about their jobs as a blessing, that they “couldn’t do anything else”, whilst recognising the emotional weight of the stories and lives of those they spend time with. Among the heavy days and difficult situations, everyone I spoke to also shared moments of absolute joy with me.
Junction42 run creative sessions in the prisons, as both ‘engagement’ activities (often giving opportunities for individuals to share their own stories in artistic form) and preparation for leaving. Often there is a struggle to engage with the bittersweet of positive memories but through the forming of relationship, Jill is able to recognise the joy in this situation as it changes. “To see that someone’s came from a point of where they can’t think of anything positive to a point where actually they want to share.” Stepping stones perhaps, but for those individuals these moments signify walls coming down, allowing themselves to feel and move forward in their journey.

Stockton Art Exhibition of art created by County Durham prisonersCraig spent two weeks in HMP Durham on placement and was overjoyed to share a time of worship with a group who have been growing in their faith during their time inside. “Seeing a group of prisoners stood in the chapel singing the new version of Amazing Grace…To be stood eyes closed, full song, stood surrounded by people in prison with their arms up saying their chains fell off, they’ve been set free…It was a real insight in what God can do…”

However, there is a high rate of re-offending across the UK, often linked to lack of community and options when an individual leaves prison. Bex and Jill shared that the women they meet struggle with loneliness, having found themselves alone without family or friends to support them during their stay and afterwards, and therefore the women find themselves vulnerable too. But this is not gender specific, men also often find themselves without anyone to turn to as they leave the prison gates, easily falling back in with old groups or being told they must stay with next of kin in areas which hold danger or difficulty for them.

Tomorrow, the interview with Bex and Jill on our Facebook page (DDMissionHub) will share a little more about the work which Junction42 is doing in this area to try to combat this issue.

We are encouraged by the verse chosen for this year’s PrisonWeek initiative, Hebrews 4.16, to ‘Boldly Go’… As well as Jill challenging us to get out of our comfort zone, the second blog post in this series will give some practical ideas of how we can get involved and what we can do in response to this situation.

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 to help in time of need”

Prisons Week aims to encourage prayer and awareness of the needs of prisoners and their families, victims of offenders, prisons staff and all those who care, reflected in the Prisons Week Prayer offered throughout the week:

Lord, you offer freedom to all people.

We pray for those in prison.

Break the bonds of fear and isolation that exist.

Support with your love prisoners and their families and friends,

prison staff and all who care.

Heal those who have been wounded by the activities

of others, especially the victims of crime.

Help us to forgive one another.

To act justly, love mercy and walk humbly together with Christ

in His strength and in His Spirit, now and every day. Amen.