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Prison Talk

I’m a volunteer caseworker for SSAFA, that’s the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, a 125 year old charity providing life-long support to  men and women of the Armed Forces and their families. For the past 6 years I’ve been a prison in-reach caseworker and one of a small team supporting ex-Service men and women in the seven London prisons. We try and establish a relationship with one particular prison and mine is Brixton, just ten minutes walk from here. I’m a key holder which means that I can draw up a set of keys and visit the various wings in the prison and sit with a veteran in his cell for a chat.

And how appropriate that the today’s epistle should include Paul’s words, ‘we were close prisoners in the custody of the Law.’

Who then are the offenders serving out their sentences in prison?

It has been said that they are the Bad, the Mad, and the Sad – so let’s take a look at those groups, starting with the Sad.

The Sad. Some people find it very difficult to cope with the complexities of modern life for a variety of reasons – lack of education, anxiety, and confusion. Slowly but surely some slide further and further to the edges of society. Many become homeless and then street sleepers existing on what can be begged or stolen, in the harsh and often violent world of the London streets. One of the Sad, let’s call him Rob, once said to me, ‘I knew that if I stayed on the streets for a few more nights I would be dead. So I found a brick, threw it through a window and rang the Police – just to get in here.’ So in prison he was relatively safe, had a warm dry bed and three meals, of a sort, each day. His life was structured and the prison officers provided that reliable authority which was lacking in the anarchy of the streets.

And the Mad. A significant proportion of those in prison suffer from mental illness and most prisons have a sizeable psychiatric department. Those with mental illness and its accompanying patterns of aberrant behaviour easily come in conflict with the law. I remember one rather engaging character with bi-polar disorder who on release would survive for a time with support from a specialist team but eventually he would decide to stop taking his medication and there  would be some incident and he would return to prison. With the shortcomings of care in the community, prisons are in danger of replacing the old asylums.

In today’s Gospel we heard of the madman, ‘with the devil in charge’, who is kept in chains and fetters for his own safety but breaks loose and goes off on his own. How little has changed.

And then, what about the Bad. These surely are the criminal class, the evil men who should be locked up. Should I be judgemental? At times it is hard not to be, but prisoners have already been judged – by a Judge and perhaps a Jury. They are serving out their punishment. It is not for me to judge again but to accept them as they are and look not at their past but at their future. When listening to a prisoner, I often find it difficult to walk the tightrope between gullibility and cynicism. For in their stories, the truth is often bent and altered to gain sympathy or clutch at remaining shreds of self respect.

But listening to those stories, I am struck by the journey that they have travelled, of lives blighted by lack of love, of wrong decisions taken, of moral choices evaded and so often the use of alcohol or drugs to keep the horrors of the past and the reality of now at bay. And of course there are those whose total self-centeredness and lack of moral compass lead them to commit serious crimes. But even so, I find it difficult to reach down, pick up the stone and be the first to throw. On more than one occasion, a prison officer has said to me after we have discussed a case, ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I.’

I try and act as an advocate and a sort of project manager in enhancing their resettlement prospects working with the Probation Service, the St Giles Trust and other in-house agencies together with specialist veterans’ organisations. There is much that can be done in the final few months of a prisoner’s sentence especially arranging accommodation and employment on release. It is vital, when he stands outside the main gate of the prison on the day of his release with his few belongings in a black bag and his grant of £47 in his pocket that he has somewhere to go which will provide safe accommodation and support. Without that and the determination to succeed, he may just return to those patterns of life which in the past led to prison.

I have found my work in prisons a deeply enriching experience. I have learnt about many different lives and broadened my view of the depth and scope of human existence. It has given me a sense of humility when I consider the advantages which I have enjoyed, stability together with many lucky breaks. For so many who I meet in prison, the opposite is true.

On the centenary day of the CHS in January in a reading from Luke’s Gospel, Jesus read from Isaiah ‘He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners.’

For me, that means not that the gates of the prison should be thrown open so that all the inmates can pour out. Rather it is that when the prisoner is released having served his time, then he might achieve real freedom, freedom from the ghosts and demons of his past, freedom from destructive compulsions, freedom from addiction, and freedom to live a life through which he could fulfil his potential within society.

The other day I got a text from a veteran, let’s call him Tom, who I had been working with for many months. He had been released a week before and the text read ‘Thanks to you and others, I’m not stuck in the nightmare of a past. I’ve finally woken up and smelt freedom and seen that I can fit into society and be someone. Here’s for a better future.’

But even so, Tom is not finding it easy on the outside. He has to balance work, the therapy he is undergoing and tight budgeting. He still needs a lot of support and mentoring. 

John Taylor 23 June 2013