Saturday, 29 September 2012

Prison Service, Military Service and Remembering.

The percentage of ex-forces prisoners in Scotland is on the rise.  It is the same in other parts of the UK.  Probably the rise is partly to do with the difficulty former soldiers often find in settling back into Civvy Street, especially those soldiers who've been traumatised by what they've seen, heard and done in warzones.
There are charities who seek to help former service men and women and some, such as Help for Heroes, have gained a lot of support, which is good.  On the other hand it is surely the case that since we the country sent these people to war on our behalf, we the country should pay for any help they need when they come home.  It doesn't seem right to leave charities to fill the gap.
Quoting from here
"Veterans in Custody.
In response to public and parliamentary interest in the increasing number of prisoners identified as 'ex-forces', the SPS carried out a survey of military veterans across all 15 establishments to better understand the numbers involved and give these individuals the opportunity to comment on a range of issues that impact on their experiences in prison. Subsequently, each establishment across the SPS estate now has a Veterans in Custody Support Officer (VICSO).
From January 2011 to December 2011 the number of prisoners identified as Ex- Forces rose from 103 in January to 168 in December. This however may not be a true reflection of the exact numbers as for a prisoner to be identified he has to "self-report" either on initial admission to an establishment or making it be known during his sentence.
Each establishment across the SPS estate now has a Veterans in Custody Support Officer (VICSO). Ideally this is a nominated member of staff who has personally served in the Armed Forces. They will be better suited to the role as they will be fully aware of the terms and information being talked about, as well as having a working knowledge of the Armed Forces.
The main aim of the VICSO is to identify Ex-Armed Forces offenders at the earliest opportunity and then refer or signpost them onto community based Ex- Forces organisations. The VICSO works alongside and contributes to Offender Management as well as acting as a liaison between the offender and his Personal Officer and supervisors in the establishment.
Many of the Ex-Forces that are currently in the system were unaware of any support network or the fact that the Veterans in Custody Programme existed. On leaving the Armed Forces many of them felt on their own and not sure if there was any help they could access. From personal experience the resettlement phase of leaving the Forces can be a daunting and stressful time. Every effort is made to make personnel leaving the Armed Forces aware that there is an infrastructure in place and that the organisations are more than happy to offer help and support.
The community based organisations we work alongside are the Royal British Legion, Poppy Scotland, SSAFA (Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association), SPVA (Service Personnel and Veterans Agency), Combat Stress and RFEA (Regular Forces Employment Association).  With many of the organisations mainly basing their help for the offender themselves, it is clear that the families also require assistance from time to time. Frontline Families is there for the families of Ex-Forces, and has been a huge help and gives the families a chance to talk to someone.
The organisations can offer help and support in many ways. They can help with financial as well as emotional support. Our first port of call with any referral of an Ex-Forces member serving a prison sentence is to SSAFA. They are best placed to offer support and much needed guidance. They are also ideally suited to obtain information about military records and information from the offender's parent unit whilst they were serving.
With the number of Ex-Forces increasing it is safe to say this is an issue that is not going to go away, and with all agencies working together we can help to provide support and guidance to the current prison population that have served in the Armed Forces."
That's the background to the story I want to share in this blog post. 
At the prison where I work, there are quite a number of ex forces people both on the staff side and the prisoner side.  Over the last couple of years, at Armistice, we have had a short Act of Remembrance which has been well attended by prisoners and staff alike.  These are always moving occasions - anywhere - but particularly so, I find, in Prisonworld.  It is just about the only time when the normal "them and us" between officers and prisoners/ "screws" and "cons" is suspended and we meet just as human beings.
Over the summer, a group of prisoners (mostly ex-forces), under the leadership of an ex-forces officer, and with some kind donations from wellwishers such as the Royal British Legion Scotland, have created on a patch of waste ground a beautiful memorial garden.  Half of the garden is focussed on a new war memorial designed and built by the prisoners.  The other half is a more general sort of memorial garden which is for people to remember anyone who they have lost through any kind of bereavement, not just through war.
It has now been dedicated and opened for use.  It is going to be a great resource to the prison.  The prisoners now have a quiet area to go and be calm, and to think and reflect.  We now also have a focal point for our Act of Remembrance on Armistice Day allowing us all (whether ex-forces or not) to take time out to think seriously of the horrific cost of war and remember those who lost their lives fighting in wars past and present.

Friday, 28 September 2012

God as CCTV?

When I was a wee girl, 100 years ago, my dad who was - as well as being my lovely dad - my minister, often had the congregation singing the children's hymn "God is always near me".  He must have liked it because we had it a lot.  And every time we got to the end and sang "Not a look nor word nor thought but God knows it all"  I felt a wee shiver.  God knew my every word and thought?  Yikes! 

These memories came back to me this week when I read the following post from a minister on an online forum I frequent:

"Go on - tell me I'm the only one who is always slightly shocked at the realization of how bleak a hymn this is:

God is always near me,
Hearing what I say;
Knowing all my thoughts and deeds,
All my work and play.

God is always near me,
In the darkest night,
He can see me just the same
As by midday light.

God is always near me,
Though so young and small;
Not a look, or word, or thought,
But God knows it all.

On a couple of occasions, I uset to pick it - irregularly - on the basis of remembering the first line and misremembering the rest as being about God's "nearness". (And who hasn't started reading the last verse,and assumed that it's going to end with a couplet about how God understands and forgives.)

And then I'd realize as I gave it out that there is NOTHING consoling at all in it. Bleak, bleak, bleak!!!!"

Clearly I'm not the only one who took the last two lines as a punch in the solar plexus.  And yet, it's many years since I've lost the feeling I used to have about those two lines.

Now when I read them I find great comfort in them.  Here's why.

When I was a kid, listening to/singing those lines, I was uncomfortable with the thought that I couldn't pull the wool over God's eyes, or in other words, that, no matter what act I kept up in front of my fellow human beings, I couldn't fool God.

But that - I now see - was because I thought (wrongly) that the word "Christian" meant "good person".  I wanted to be a Christian but knew I wasn't entirely a good person and, no matter how I tried, each day ended in failure to reach perfection!  I was well and truly aware of the undeniable fact that I was a sinner.  For modern non-church readers, the word "screw-up" is a possible translation of "sinner".

At the grand old age of 13 I finally "got it".  It dawned on me that reaching perfection is way beyond our ability on our own as human beings.  It dawned on me that God knew this all along and planned a daring rescue to get us out of our predicament.  It dawned on me (Good Friday, 13th April 1979) that God loved us before we loved him - LONG before we loved him.  He loved us in spite of knowing our looks, our words, our thoughts. 

In one sense I've always been a Christian believer.  I don't remember not believing.  In another sense that date in April 1979 - Good Friday - when as a young teenager I understood the great transaction that took place at the cross, was the date of my "conversion" or at least the date of my own ownership of the faith of my parents.

It wasn't all that long after that date that I came across the wonderful Psalm 139 (so much my favourite Psalm that for a while 139 was the combination lock on my briefcase!  It's now in the bin and I don't have one now so I can make free with such top secret information, hahaha) which I've read many a time at the bedside of the dying - I used to be a hospice chaplain - and in prison, where it's every bit as important, and in my own life (it's the psalm I read the day I found out I was going to be a mother, for instance).

When I sing, tunelessly in my case, "God is always near me...  not a look nor word nor thought but God knows it all"...  I no longer feel that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.  I no longer think that, oh dear, I am "stuffed" because God has seen the real me and the game's a bogey, as we say in Scotland when it's all gone pear-shaped. 

Quite the reverse, actually. 

I now think, "God is always near me...  Not a look, nor word, nor thought, but God knows it all AND YET HE LOVES ME!!  YUSSSSSSS!!"   There is nowhere I can go (prison, even) where God won't see me, love me and hear me.  He's under no illusions about the real me, even if other people are, but he LOVES me!  How fab...