Sunday, 28 November 2010

Snow Day at Church.

As I write, Him Indoors is trudging through the snow to tell any brave souls who turn up at church this morning that the services are cancelled.  As well as snow we're having thunder and lightning.  In November!  I wish I'd never seen the film "The Day After Tomorrow"....

A story is in my head today that my dad told me years ago.  There was once a minister in a rural parish who woke to see that there had been heavy snow.  He at first assumed that no one would come but then decided (as Him Indoors has) that he should go to the church building just in case.  His manse was next door to the church. 

At the time the service was due to start, he looked out and saw that a solitary tractor was approaching driven by a local farmer.

"Well Jock", the minister said, "since it's just you and me, I think we'll cancel the service today".

"Oh now then, meenister, if I went out to feed the cattle and only one turned up I'd still hae to feed it".

The minister felt duly chastened and climbed into the pulpit and went ahead with the service - hymns, sermon, everything.  At the end of the service, at the door, he said, "Was that all right for you, Jock?".

"Jings, meenister, if just one cow turned up I would hae to feed it but I wouldnae gie it the whale lot"!

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Prisoners' Week 2010 - sixth post.

One of the first prisoners I got to know - let's call him Fred - was a committed (no pun intended) Christian who was very strong in his faith indeed.  He had become a Christian after his crime was committed but some years before coming into prison.  This meant that he had had the opportunity to become well established in a church. 

When he went to prison, the people in his church were supportive of his wife and also of him.  He was visited, and prayed for, and written to.  Some days he would get ten pieces of mail - very unusual, to put it mildly - and the letters would be from people in his church.

Because he was one of the first prisoners I got to know I didn't at that stage realise just how unusual he was.  Most prisoners who are Christians have only come to faith since coming into prison.  Most prisoners who are Christians don't have a church back home praying for them and loving and supporting them and their family.

I had read the book of Acts in the Bible many times in my life before becoming a prison chaplain, and meeting Fred, but I had never really noticed Acts 12:5 until then. 

"So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him".

Peter, the gung-ho hothead of Jesus's disciples, that we love, who was devoted to Jesus and yet so human and flawed, prone to doubt and panic, once promised Jesus that he was ready to go to jail for Jesus or even to die for him.  In the end he got the chance to do both, but not before he had panicked and denied three times even knowing Jesus at all.  He was imprisoned for preaching about the risen Christ - but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.  And Peter came out of prison unscathed, earlier than expected and with his faith intact.  He had somewhere to go when he came out of prison, too, after Rhoda got over the shock, anyway.

In Prisoners' Week, the Church is encouraged to remember about, and pray for, all prisoners (as well as the victims of crime and staff).  In this post I just want to add, though, that if you're a Christian, it is important that you remember that in prisons all across the country will be Christian prisoners who are your brothers and sisters in Christ.  Many of them will be very new in their faith, with lots and lots to learn and very possibly much of the baggage and mess of their past still to face up to and deal with.  They are not like Fred with a church back home to pray for them and to go to when they get out.  They need your prayers!

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Prisoners' Week 2010 - fifth post.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn said: "If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them!  But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.  And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?" 

Isn't that an interesting quote?

As a prison chaplain, I see one of my functions as to tell Churchworld about Prisonworld.  Quite often I get opportunities, which I value, to speak to church groups about my work.  And I have this blog - albeit unofficially and semi-anonymously. 

 I do these things because I am aware that by definition, prisoners are out-of-sight-out-of-mind, as I said earlier this week, and so it is hard for Christians to remember about them.  Prisoners' Week serves an important purpose therefore.  I am not blaming anyone.  This time four years ago I had given very little thought in my life to prisons or prisoners at all!

However, reflecting on Solzhenitsyn's quote, I'm wondering if something else is happening too.

It's not just that we forget about prisoners.  We perhaps choose to forget about them.  Not consciously.  Not on purpose.  But in some mysterious way for our own welfare we do, perhaps.

It is well known that people in this country will give far more generously and willingly to animal welfare charities than to mental health charities.  The mental health charities are also the poor relations to the physical health charities.  One reason for this may be that animals are not just cute and fluffy but are "other" or "them".  People who have cancer or blindness or deafness or have muscular dystrophy are to those of us who don't, also "other" or "them". 

Mental health is a different thing, though.   There are so many sliding scales. and most of us, deep down, would have to admit that we're on the scale in one direction or another.  We're a little paranoid, or we're a little depressed, or we're a little prone to hysteria, or whatever.  At least, we'd have to admit it if we thought about it.  But by not thinking about it, we're protected from disquiet.  This is a factor, perhaps, in our unwillingness to think much about mental health charities when it comes to allocating our giving.

Prisons can be conveniently compartmentalised, in a literal physical way, as separate from the rest of society.  By doing so, we're able to feel that offenders are "other" or "them" and we are safely "us".

The reality is, though, that we're not so different from offenders.  There's a sliding scale there too.  Christians know it as sin. 

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Coffee & Custody.

It was my privilege a few days ago to attend a coffee morning for Prisoners Week.  It wasn't "in aid" of Prisoners Week in a money-raising sense.  In fact it was a free coffee morning.  It was for Prisoners Week though and was held in a prison.  The prison is a low security one, or this wouldn't have happened of course, but members of local churches (and an imam from the mosque) were invited in to the prison to have coffee with the prisoners.  The coffee and cakes were served by the chaplains and some of the prisoners.  The rest of the prisoners who came were served along with the public.

Some prisoners' artwork was on display and one of the prisoners read a poem he had written.  Also on display was some photos of some of the charity efforts that prisoners had been involved in.

What was lovely about the occasion was that, without any orchestration, the tables all filled up with a mixture of prisoners and public who were able to chat in a relaxed way.

The purpose of Prisoners Week is to remind folk in the churches to care about and pray for prisoners, and the chaplains who organised the event were hoping that this would help with that aim.  Hopefully the attendees would go back to their churches and talk about the event.  It was also hoped that the prisoners would have the opportunity to learn that there are people out there who care about them enough to give up a Saturday morning to travel to the prison to come in and chat to people they don't know, and that they - the prisoners - would sense that they were loved.  Interestingly, a couple of the prisoners commented that they thought it was a great occasion and it was good to be able to show people that prisoners can be "nice" and "normal".

The prison where the coffee morning was held is for people at the end of their sentences and one of the privileges is that the guys can wear their own clothes.  Because of this, a few of the public in attendance whispered to me (being a woman it was clear I was not a prisoner) "How do you know who's a prisoner and who's a member of the public?"

I loved that question.  "Exactly!" and "Yussssss!", I thought.

Monday, 22 November 2010


Yesterday I was blogging about the Scottish Prisoners Week theme of "More Than A Number".

It's not just the actual prisoner number that contributes to the "just-a-number-ness" of prison. There is obviously much more than that involved. When a prisoner begins his sentence, his first hours in the jail will see him "dehumanised" by the handing over of his own clothes and the donning of prison issue clothes.

In many prisons in Scotland the colour of your shirt will show which hall you have been assigned to (leading amongst other things to sex offenders being obvious to other prisoners, amongst whom they are very unpopular).

The dehumanising process of coming into prison - the "dog boxes" in the prison transport vans and the "dog boxes" in the prison reception, the allocation of a number and the change into prison uniform - known as "mortification" - is not accidental. It is deliberate and is to give offenders very firmly the message, "Right, then, sonny. You might have been a big hot-shot on the outside, top of your criminal tree. But in here you're just a number. You're the same as the rest of them. The sooner you buckle down and accept this new reality the better you will get on".

There is a certain apparent and appealing logic to this thinking, but in my humble opinion it's deeply flawed.

For every offender who needs to get this message, who's got too big for his criminal boots, I think there must be twenty others who already think they're nothing. (I've plucked the number twenty from the air - it might be a lot more). The point is that, however many offenders come in cocky and arrogant and needing humbled, many times more than that come into prison with a pick and mix of: mental health issues, addiction issues, past childhood abuse/neglect/trauma, illiteracy, social inadequacy, learning difficulties, bereavement issues and/or guilt. Far from needing mortification and dehumanisation, what they need is healing, restoration, hope, encouragement, education, healthcare, addictions support, and (to be radical) love .

Even those offenders who do need taken down a peg are unlikely to be transformed for the better by the mortification process. It will make the hard man harder - he will be angrier with the authorities by the end of it than he was at the start, and determine that he will not let the system break him (as he sees it).

More Than A Number is a great theme for Prisoners Week. It would make a great motto for all our social interaction actually.

I posted the following a few weeks ago but feel that it fits this post too and it's so well worth repeating I'm half-thinking of printing it off and framing it!

By Judge Dennis Challeen:

We want them to have self-worth
So we destroy their self-worth

We want them to be responsible
So we take away all responsibility

We want them to be positive and constructive
So we degrade them and make them useless

We want them to be trustworthy
So we put them where there is no trust

We want them to be non-violent
So we put them where violence is all around them

We want them to be kind and loving people
So we subject them to hatred and cruelty

We want them to quit being the tough guy
So we put them where the tough guy is respected

We want them to quit hanging around losers
So we put all the losers under one roof

We want them to quit exploiting us
So we put them where they exploit each other

We want them to take control of their lives, own problems and quit being a parasite...
So we make them totally dependant on us.

More Than A Number.

This week is Prisoners' Week (see yesterday's post). In Scotland we have as our theme this year "More Than A Number". I think it's one of the best themes in years. It's surely obvious that people are more than a number, and yet I do think we need to remind ourselves frequently lest we miss the obvious.

We all have numbers these days. I must be known to "The Authorities" by many different numbers, including my passport number, my national insurance number, my driving licence number (and the number of points on it, ahem), my bank account number, my patient number, my Tesco number, my PIN numbers, my blood donor number, my work ID number, and so on and so on. I don't mind this really as it's an efficient way to run administrative systems.

However, in Prisonworld, the numbering system makes me a little uneasy. It's not that I think it's wrong or should be abolished. I can see it's administratively essential. But the unfortunate side-effect seems to me to be dehumanising psychologically.

The number you are given as a prisoner stays with you for the rest of your life - if you get another prison sentence you will be given the same number. This means that, as the cartoon suggests, the smaller the number a prisoner has the longer ago he first entered the system, although he may have been out of prison for years and years in between sentences.

Recently a prisoner returned to our establishment who was with us a year or more ago. When I looked at the list of "transfers in" and saw his surname, which is quite a common one, I realised that I knew it was him by his number. I don't particularly have a head for numbers (I've been known to forget my PIN number at the bank) so I was surprised to recognise a prisoner in this way.

Some prisoners don't seem to mind their number at all. I think it's sad that they've become so institutionalised that it is their "normal". Some even get their prisoner number tattooed on their body - occasionally with a barcode design!

Me? I don't want to lose my discomfort with the prisoner number. I'm not opposed to it. As I said, we've all got lots of numbers these days in lots of administrative systems. But in Prisonworld it is such a symbol of the one-size-fits-all dehumanising system that I will be quite content if I go through the rest of my time as a prison chaplain feeling slightly awkward every single time I have to ask, every day, "What's your number?"

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Prisoners Week 2010

(Cartoon courtesy of Jon Birch's "The Ongoing Adventures of ASBO Jesus".)

There are National Days and International Days and Special Weeks and Months and The Year of The Whatever all the time.

Breast Cancer Awareness Month and Prostate Cancer Awareness Month do a good job, for example. I was pretty scathing when I learned that Friday was World Toilet Day until I read what it said on the website, when I had a change of heart. There are some thought-provoking statistics there.

Today is the start of Prisoners Week.

Prisoners' Week isn't really for prisoners. When you're in prison, every week is prisoners' week. Prisoners' Week is designed to remind people, especially in Churchworld, of prisons and prisoners who are otherwise out-of-sight-and-out-of-mind. The Bible tells Christians that they must remember those in prison as if they were in prison themselves but, with the best will in the world, they are difficult to remember.
Society sends them to prison to get them out of the road and this is so successful that it is easy to forget about prisoners, although I always say to church groups that when they see the Reliance Van (our company car!) that can serve as a reminder to us to pray. Inside those vans will probably be prisoners - each in one of the "dog boxes" which are truly horrible.

The purpose of this post (you thought I'd never get there, eh?) is to encourage you to pray for prisoners this week. Sometimes that idea irks people and they say, understandably, "But what about the victims, AnneDroid?" What about them? It's not an either/or. It's not an either/or in the sense that we can and should pray for both prisoners AND victims. We don't have to choose! But also, it's not an either/or in the sense that sorting out who is a prisoner and who is a victim isn't always as simplistic as you might think. I would guess that most prisoners are also victims in some way or another - often back in childhood through abuse or neglect, but also in adulthood too.

If you would like to pray for prisoners, you can pray for them any time :)

But if you'd like to make a special effort to pray for prisoners in Prisoners' Week that would be totally fab.

Here is the Prisoners' Week prayer from the website:

Lord, you offer freedom to all people.
We pray for those who are captives in prison
and those who are affected by or involved in their imprisonment.
Break the bonds of fear and isolation that exist.
Support with your love: prisoners, 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, to love mercy,
and walk humbly together with Christ
in his strength and in his spirit now and every day.

(Of course you can use your own words instead if you like...).

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

The AMAZING story of Jacob de Shazer.

We've been very blessed at our church over the last year by the presence of "Proby The Second", our lovely probationer Paul, who - sadly for us but not for his future congregation - is about to leave us for pastures new, with his lovely wife and family.

Anyway I was so impressed with the story he told us on Sunday as part of our Service of Remembrance for those lost in warfare, that I asked if I could re-tell it here.

It was about Jacob de Shazer who I confess I'd never heard of. He was a bomber, who as part of America's retaliation against the Japanese for Pearl Harbour, set off to bomb the Japanese. He describes how he was full of bitterness in his heart and that, as far as he was concerned, the more Japanese he killed the better. However, he ran out of fuel and had to parachute - into the hands of the Japanese who held him as a prisoner of war, in very grim conditions indeed.

After two years' harsh imprisonment, he came into possession of a Bible and started to read it. He was so affected that he became a Christian. Romans 10:9 which says "If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved" impressed him particularly and he never looked back, knowing from then on that God was real and "we can't hide a thing from him" and then "the hatred went out of my heart". All his hatred for the Japanese vanished - an act of God without doubt.

After Japan surrendered and the war was over, he was flown back to America. He finished college then went back to Japan in 1948 as a missionary. Amazing!

Lots of Japanese people became Christians, partly through the ministry of Jacob de Shazer, whose return to Japan astonished them in the circumstances.

Undoubtedly the most remarkable and significant convert, Mitsuo Fuchida, who read a tract about Jacob de Shazer's experience and then went to the Bible and became a Christian (and a friend of De Shazer), had been the leader of the attack on Pearl Harbour.

That Fuchida and De Shazer should become friends after their past mutual hatred is amazing, isn't it?

By contrast it's a very little thing, and you may wonder at my mentioning it here, but for me this is a powerful illustration of something also very marvellous that I've seen recently. Last week it was my great privilege to be speaking at a meeting to raise awareness of Prisonworld amongst some church people. The previous night the previous occupant of the position of Her Majesty's Inspector of Prisons in Scotland, and a Prison Governor had been speaking. The day I spoke, I was preceded by a Prison Officer who gave a virtual tour (through powerpoint) of a Scottish maximum security jail. This officer happens to be a committed Christian. Between his talk and mine the audience heard the remarkable testimony of a former prisoner, whom I count it an honour to call a friend. Then I did a muddly kind of summing-up. What I appreciated more than anyone in the room, probably, was what a special thing it was for the prison officer and the (former) prisoner to be sharing the platform as brothers in Christ, as equals.

This link
will allow you the opportunity to hear Jacob de Shazer tell his own story, by the way. Not long, but well worth listening to.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Two minutes silence - 1919 in London and 2010 in a Scottish jail

"The first stroke of eleven produced a magical effect.
The tram cars glided into stillness, motors ceased to cough and fume, and stopped dead, and the mighty-limbed dray horses hunched back upon their loads and stopped also, seeming to do it of their own volition.
Someone took off his hat, and with a nervous hesitancy the rest of the men bowed their heads also. Here and there an old soldier could be detected slipping unconsciously into the posture of 'attention'. An elderly woman, not far away, wiped her eyes, and the man beside her looked white and stern. Everyone stood very still ... The hush deepened. It had spread over the whole city and become so pronounced as to impress one with a sense of audibility. It was a silence which was almost pain ... And the spirit of memory brooded over it all." From the Manchester Guardian, 12th November 1919.

At a Remembrance Service today, it was my privilege to read that amazing newspaper excerpt along with two poems. The poems were Dulce et Decorum Est from WWI, by Wilfred Owen whose parents received the news of his death so near the end of the war just about the time that the Armistice was declared and This Place Called War by Joanna Carman about her brother going off to Afhganistan, which he survived only to be killed in Iraq at a later date. I also read a bit of Psalm 139 which I used so often at bedsides when I was a chaplain in the hospice movement but which seemed as appropriate here.

I always find Remembrance Services very moving and I'm so glad that 91 years after the first silence was observed, we are still doing it, and yet - as we all are - I'm obviously very grieved that the first world war did not after all turn out to be the "war to end all wars".

Today was only my second experience of taking part in a Service of Remembrance within a prison and both times I have found it to be moving in another way also. Prisonworld is, no doubt of necessity in some ways, a very them-and-us culture. Inevitably, the "screws" and the "cons" end up viewing each other (in practice rather than literally) almost as alien species, just as a result of the way the system operates. Even if you've never been in a prison, if you've watched the BBC series Porridge you'll know what I mean! Inevitably there are other camps too - senior management, the social work department, etc, working together but separate somehow. (I often think that chaplains are like Switzerland, "neutrals" in the midst - not because we're better people or anything, just that our job is different).

The Remembrance Service in prison is a very unusual and special occasion because we meet simply as human beings. There are ex-forces people among both the prisoners and staff, and both prisoners and staff may have relatives past and present who have fought or are fighting in war. All of us watch the news and all of us see, too often, the sad images of young people returning home from Afghanistan in a coffin.

There is something poignant and powerful about a prison Remembrance Service and I feel privileged to have been there today.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Prisoners - the right to vote?

This newspaper article, like many others in the press this week deals with the recent news that the British government are going to have to face up to the European Court of Human Rights' decision that UK prisoners should be allowed to vote.

I am really delighted that UK prisoners are to be given the vote. In reality, I think, not all that many prisoners will want to exercise that right, and, even if they did, they aren't such a huge percentage of the population that the outcome of any election would be really affected.


(1) Britain has traditionally smugly seen itself as being one of the "good guys" in terms of human rights but must walk the walk as well as talking the talk. If China (see the photo above) can be giving prisoners the right to vote, who are we to cast aspersions on their human rights record whilst being so proud of our own?

(2) What we in society want our prisoners to gain whilst in custody is a sense of responsibility. Yet what prison actually does is remove all responsibility from offenders, taking away almost all their power to decide anything, institutionalising them, and in fact infantilising them. Allowing and encouraging prisoners to vote would help a little to mitigate against this negative process, allowing them some autonomy and enabling them to feel like stakeholders in the society we want them to contribute to rather than damaging.

What has made me sad this week, though, is the tone of much of the "red top" tabloid coverage of this in the media, and also the government itself's presentation of the thing. It is being presented as a Bad Thing that we are having to give in, at last, very reluctantly, to this pressure when really we would much rather not. I find that sad and disturbing. (Mind you, and I'll leave my rant on this for another day) much of the media coverage on offenders upsets me, so I shouldn't be surprised.