15 October 2020

Prisons Week 2020: You are not alone

Walking alongside prisoners and their families is a role that many lay and ordained Methodists undertake across the country each day. This distinctive ministry is often unsung and unseen to the wider world.

During the pandemic there have been particular challenges, of course. But despite the restrictions, Deacon Esther Longe, who is a chaplain at HMP Frankland in Durham, says: “I have found that I have been able to have socially distanced one-on-one time with residents. Time to talk to them more in depth about how they are coping with lockdown, spiritual issues or indeed anything they wish to talk about has been valued.”

More generally the prison community’s spiritual needs are taken care of through providing in-cell faith material including worship and bible studies. Esther says: “Some outside Christian organisations have also sent in books and packs that we have been able to distribute and these have helped act as distractions for the prisoners and give them something to focus on.”

Prison chaplaincy is a unique form of ministry. For Esther, “A chaplain has the opportunity to support people at a hard time in their lives, to be a listening ear, to give them hope in something more. For those who profess faith they have the chance for us to help them understand what it means to follow God, and how that can change their lives.”

While prison ministry is a distinctive calling, prayer for prison communities is, according to Esther Longe, “a vital way we can be supported, especially during COVID. If you have a local prison, asking for prayer requests from the chaplain is great, so they know they are surrounded in prayer.”

“But volunteers are often in short supply and they are vital to our work in the prison. Volunteers who can come in to the prison to support Bible studies is a fantastic support to the chaplains.”

Deacon Pru Cahill at Methodist Central Hall, Manchester, is a trustee of Greater Manchester Community Chaplaincy which offers support to ex-offenders as well as mentoring and work opportunities in Café Central. She is also involved with Prison Fellowship through the Sycamore Tree project that offers victim awareness programmes that teach the principles of restorative justice.

Pru says, “Working with people who have been in prison is about honouring them for themselves and helping people to see that a prison sentence is not the most important thing about them. Working in central Manchester with ex-offenders you see the whole raft of issues that they face.”

Looking ahead to Christmas Pru mentions her involvement with the Angel Tree initiative which gives parents in prison the opportunity to send presents to their children. Over 4000 were sent in 2019. The plan is to continue this year and volunteers are welcome. 

Deacon Kathy Lamb who was a prison chaplain for 22 years, says “Whilst prayer is at the heart of Prisons Week, it is also about making the community more aware of prison work – there are quite a few misconceptions of what life is like in prisons. Volunteers can support in many ways helping with discipleship and Bible study, victim awareness, bereavement, prison visiting, or letter writing. There is also a way that volunteers can help with ex-offenders in the community which is needed. I would urge people interested in expressing their faith through support to prisoners to get in touch with their local prison chaplaincy service.”

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