BY Peter Diamond | January 4 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print

8-JAIL

‘I was in prison and you came to see me’: the Christians taking the Bible into Scotland’s jails

Visiting prisoners in HMP Greenock, Peter Diamond finds that even those who have committed the worst crimes imaginable can be redeemed, and speaks to the volunteers who are spreading the message of Christ behind bars

When I visited the women’s wing of HMP Greenock recently to take part in a workshop run by Prison Fellowship Scotland (PFS), I openly admit I was rather nervous.

It made me realise just how sheltered my life had become and that there is a wealth of work being done in the margins of society to help try and transform people’s lives through Faith.

Within seconds of meeting my guide Terry Paterson, who has been involved with Prison Fellowship for more than 20 years, I was at ease. We then met with the group of about 12 PFS volunteers, both male and female who warmly greeted me.

I was now ready to go to jail.

PFS work to serve the spiritual and emotional needs of prisoners, largely through Bible discussion groups.

Few of their volunteers are Catholic, and the organisation is looking for more people to help minister to the prison population.

Through speaking to various PFS volunteers about why they are involved in the regular Bible discussion groups, it’s clear that they believe in companionship in Christ.

 

People, not prisoners

What is hard for new volunteers initially is that they see a prisoner before they see a person, or they see a crime before a Christian.

A prisoner may disclose with you what he or she has done to merit a jail sentence, however, PFS instructs their volunteers very clearly to engage with the person not the prisoner.

Anyone who wishes to become a volunteer with a PFS Bible group will undertake brief training before going into a prison to help them navigate through the class with ease and it allows them to keep themselves focused on the purpose of evangelisation.

Following security protocols, we eventually made it into the women’s wing of the jail. There we were escorted to a classroom and the female inmates practically skipped into the room to help set up chairs. It was immediately evident that they were at ease with the volunteers and vice versa, with first name terms being exchanged all across the room.

 

Deep breaths

There was a real rapport with the leaders of the Bible class, which isn’t surprising considering some of the volunteers have been coming to Greenock prison for decades.

I was introduced to a female prisoner who was serving a life sentence. Nervous, I told myself, ‘take a deep breath Pedro, this will be fine.’

It was fine of course, and within about 20 seconds the woman, aged about 40, was giving me a rundown of the Prison Fellowship set up, her own story and how she was worried the programme would be reduced due to lack of prison staff.

I had forgotten what it was she was inside for almost instantly and when the Bible group sang the opening hymn, Father I Place into Your Hands, the meaning of a song I had known and sung oblivious to its significance since I was five-years-old, took on a whole knew meaning.

I’m sure you are humming the hymn along in your head as you read this, so you will now understand that if it wasn’t written by a reformed prisoner, then it should have been.

 

‘Father, I place into your hands

The things I cannot do,

Father, I place into your hands

The things that I’ve been through.

Father, I place into your hands

The way that I should go,

For I know I always can trust you.’

 

‘Touched by God’

Speaking to the prisoner, she explained very quickly that she had been touched by God and that Prison Fellowship quickly formed the bedrock of her Faith, helping her to grow, engage and transform her life.

She said: “I was a drug-addict all of my adult life and I never felt part of anything. You knew people and they knew you—or more likely didn’t want to know you.

“Before I came to prison I had been a bad person for many years and was full of guilt and shame. Morally and spiritually, I was bankrupt inside and had nothing to give. I was dead inside. I honestly was, there was nothing there.

“I was at the lowest point of my life when I came to prison and I remember being in my cell and just falling to my knees and cried out for God to help me because I knew I was beyond the help of anyone on Earth.”

The prisoner, whose name cannot be revealed for legal reasons, stated that at that point, in her cell, her journey of Faith began.

She added: “Since that moment my life has turned around and the Fellowship has been invaluable to my growth and journey to becoming a Christian.

“I’ve been coming to church for six years now. I had started going to church services at Corton Vale prison but they didn’t have any prison fellowship programme there.

“So when I was transferred to Greenock jail I was craving more guidance and knowledge and thankfully the people from Prison Fellowship provide a bit more of that.”

 

Newfound stability

The inmate explained how she couldn’t have dealt with the hardships of jail life without her new found Faith, and the role Prison Fellowship Bible evenings have provided a stability that allows her to take her Faith into the main lunch hall and share.

“The volunteers are great—they make you feel like you’re a part of a community for one hour or so, which is such a lifeline because prison can be a very lonely place,” she said.

“There may be hundreds of people around you throughout the day in prison but you can still feel very isolated within and so to come together with people and feel welcome, feel part of something, is really great.

“Yes sometimes it can be a struggle and you go through some rough patches but that’s what the fellowship is there for, to brighten you up, and it really keeps you going.

“It amazes me that if there are any bumps on the road or rough patches and you come through them you become stronger in your Faith.”

“Becoming a Christian has been a life-saving and life-changing experience for me. Without my Faith I don’t think that I would have survived in here,” she added.

 

A changed woman

Since being baptised a Christian in the jail two years ago she has learned how to play the guitar and now leads the singing and strums along at the Prison Fellowship evenings.

She has even been able to share her story with her fellow prisoners, allowing them to hear the role that God has played in her transformation.

She said: “I really enjoy the wee songs and music we play at our sessions and I think a lot of the girls that come along that maybe haven’t found their Faith yet come along to take part in that and it allows them to explore a bit and ask questions.

“I love to participate in the group and I think as you begin to grow in Faith the way I have in here then you naturally want to share it. It’s as if the more I share and participate then the more I get out of it.

“The nights we have with Prison Fellowship are the bedrock but the aim for me is about trying to expand that and take it back through to the halls and create that Christian community for everyone.”

The woman that spoke to me in Greenock jail delivered her tale in a few minutes with more passion than even some priests I have encountered over my life.

She remains worried about the lack of facilities within the prison life and insisted that Prison Fellowship is vital to tackling some of the big issues around restoring human beings on a wrong path.

“I’ve had to come to prison in order to be set free and feel part of something and that’s because of Jesus and what I’ve achieved through Prison Fellowship,” she said.

“When the group come in each week you are reminded that you are a part of a wider Christian community even though you’re here in jail and that’s important because it provides hope.

“A lot of the women in here are so vulnerable and it can give someone that wee bit of hope that might sustain them.”

The Prison Fellowship meeting I attended had more than 20 inmates present keen to listen to Billy, who led the group of 12 volunteers, some who have served time behind bars themselves.

The prisoner whom I spoke with said her ambition would be for Prison Fellowship to continue outwith the Bible class and to share songs, prayers and stories within the main hall of the jail.

“When people hear my story about the crimes I committed and the way I lived they are shocked and rightly so but when I tell them about my journey it gives them hope,” she said, adding: “Well I hope that’s the case anyway.”

“You start having conversations with people about your Faith and about what God’s done for you in your life and other people may ask questions but most of the time they want to find out more and it’s great to be able to share that,” she said. “It is very simple.

“With the volunteers we sing songs, prayers, share our stories of transformation and ultimately we want to take that back into the halls and share it with other people and I pray that will happen.”

 

Future expansion

Prison Fellowship operates in 13 of 15 jails in Scotland. With just 100 volunteers they are looking to boost their numbers to sustain and grow in their locations.

A spokesperson for Prison Fellowship Scotland said: “Our weekly conversation groups are interactive discussions based on Biblical text, themes and interpretation.

“Our key focus is always on relationships, using the time to get to know the men and women who attend. We always go at an individual’s pace.

“We assume nothing and we do not judge, criticise or condemn. Even if an individual’s opinion differs from ours, we embrace equality and diversity.”

On concluding my chat with the long-term prisoner, she revealed that now in her daily life she tries to do what Jesus would do if He were in the Greenock jail. Furthermore, her family are now proud of her and have seen a ‘real difference.’

She added: “Now everyday I try and do a good thing for someone. It can be very simple, like a smile or inviting someone for a cup of tea.

“I guess because of the rubbish stuff I’ve done in life it’s about time I gave something back.

“Prison fellowship has given me self-esteem, a purpose and has restored me to the person who I am supposed to be.

“My family have seen a real difference within me, so much so that they want to ‘check the label on the back of ma heid’ to make sure it’s still the same human being.

“They are proud of me now and I needed to change for them. I’m glad I have.

“Now I have so much to give and that personal growth within makes me so hungry to give even more back, to pass it on, to let people see they can also transform their live with God’s help if they are willing to let Him into their lives.”

 

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