Through the barred windows

By Alex Peden (From Seeds October 2021)

Prisons are a blind spot for many churches: a window that’s just too difficult to look into.

On the one hand, being a Christian is all about forgiveness and fresh starts. On the other, we can all think of terrible crimes which we ourselves may feel demand punishment. We wouldn’t want to be vengeful, nor fall into the trap of being over-sentimental and naïve. However, by ignoring the issue, might we be tacitly accepting the ‘who cares, just lock ‘em up’ overtures of some sections of our society? It seems to me that we have a responsibility to know more about our prisons.

Very recently at a Zoom social, I learnt that my assumption, that our own church had nothing to do with prisons, is wrong. Members of our church, not long ago, had volunteered to serve refreshments to prisoners and to be visitors at Saughton prison (HMP Edinburgh). Others have served as prison chaplains.

I wanted to bust other assumptions I may have made about prisons. That’s why I was glad to speak to John Nonhebel, the newly appointed Executive Director of Prison Fellowship Scotland. PF Scotland is a non-denominational charity that works alongside prison chaplains to provide opportunities for prisoners to discover the Christian faith, as well as reflecting on the impacts of their crimes on individuals and communities, through a process of ‘restorative justice’. ‘It involves Bible study and exploring faith with the prisoners… it’s good fun,’ John told me.

A little to my dismay, soon into our conversation John was confirming some things I had feared were true: Firstly, Scottish prisons are ‘bursting’, currently with around 7,000 people. ‘We lock up more people than any other country in Western Europe,’ John said. I checked this fact and indeed Scotland appears to have a higher rate of incarceration per capita than any other Western European country.

He also confirmed that serious mental health issues are rife amongst prisoners. Prison chaplains are having to work hard on suicide prevention, with an increasing number of deaths in custody. The problem is compounded by drugs: large numbers of inmates are there for drug-related offences, and the infiltration of drugs into prisons is an increasing problem.

Although all this was difficult to hear, I was at least very glad to be speaking to someone with first-hand knowledge of the system. John has devoted his life to working in the charitable sector, being strongly motivated by Jesus’ example of bringing good news to the poor and exploited, something he did for 20 years in India.

Frustratingly for him, he came into his current role at PF Scotland just three months before the first Covid lockdown, which severely limited contact with prisoners (as well as cutting off inmates from a raft of support services). However, he is greatly looking forward to getting back ‘behind the walls’ very soon.

Why is our imprisonment rate so high, I wanted to know? Is it tougher sentencing? His belief was that the Scottish Government is not properly looking at alternative solutions which he believes are ‘way more successful’. According to him, other European countries are achieving more by treating crime as a public health issue, with low crime and decreasing rates of imprisonment in Portugal being just one example.

The vast majority of prisoner are men, but something I learnt from John was how much harder prison life can be for women. ‘They are very isolated, and they have very few visits. The mental health issues are worse for women.’ For one thing, the pain of separation from their children and families can be more acute.

Many have spent their lives against a backdrop of physical and mental abuse. A recent study showed that 80 per cent of female prisoners had a history of serious head injury. ‘There are too many women in the prison system at the moment. It’s about 400 whereas it should be 40,’ John said.

John is hopeful about an initiative of the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) for Custodial Care Units in which groups of no more than around 30 women are housed together in a supportive open prison environment.

“some prisoners have done horrendous things, but the majority are people who have maybe made just one mistake”

I wanted to know what ordinary people can do to help. ‘Educate yourself, find out more,’ he said. Also ask your MSPs ‘why they aren’t looking at alternative solutions’. However, John’s own focus is to get back working with prisoners and running courses. That’s where he feels he can do his best work.

PF Scotland recruits new volunteers every year, who often come from churches in the local areas of many of Scotland’s 15 prisons. PF Scotland provides volunteers with opportunities for exploring faith with small groups of prisoners or helping to run a course called ‘Sycamore Tree’ on restorative justice (named for the tree Zacchaeus climbed to see Jesus coming), where prisoners reflect on the suffering their crimes have caused others. This is a scheme the SPS is keen to expand. Full training is provided for all programmes by PF Scotland, even for letter writing to prisoners, where a balance is needed between safety, anonymity, and keeping the communication meaningful for the prisoners.

John was upbeat in his message that ‘God is at work’ in Scottish prisons, and lives are genuinely ‘being transformed’. And as we finished our interview, John said something to make me think: ‘They’re just like us you know.’ Yes, some prisoners have done horrendous things, but the majority are people ‘who have maybe made just one mistake’.

Focussing on prisons might be more like looking into a mirror than a window – but having started to look, I want to find out more.