I spent all day Thursday in prison. HMP Belmarsh to be precise. I've never been in a prison before and at 8.10am wasn't sure that I would be spending the day there. My Placement Supervisor had got in touch with the Chaplain and, as instructed, I turned up at 8am with Passport, Driving Licence and CRB to be told that 'I wasn't on the list'. On arriving, the Chaplain had forgotten to complete the paperwork. All was well, though, when he re-appeared 15 or so minutes later with the necessary forms. After completing the necessary (finger print scans, photos) I was going to be allowed in.
First impressions were that it was very quite once inside. We walked through the yard where prisoners first arrive allow a walkway and into the Chaplaincy building. This all appeared very civilised. The Chaplaincy is made up of a few faiths - Muslim, Hindu and then a number of Christian denominations.
I met the team. A missionary who spends much of his time in Africa, and a couple of volunteers who live relatively nearby. The morning was going to be taken up with a bible study for beginners. They expected just over 30 prisoners to attend. The atmosphere was very calm and relaxed as we chatted and laid out the beautiful chapel for the session and to welcome the prisoners.
Prisoners wandered in. Some were dressed in their own clothes, some in the prison's regulation red-ish tracksuits and trainers. A whole mix of people, black and white, young and old. I wasn't told what I should or shouldn't say and as they all walked in, I received a handshake, friendly 'hello' and in some cases a little chat.
When everyone was in, worship began. New people were welcomed and introduced; as was I. For which I received a round of applause! Worship was very evangelical affair, with a number of rousing songs sung, and sung with great feeling and gusto. It was strange in many respects. I didn't at any stage at this point or in the afternoon feel threatened, in fact I felt very comfortable in amongst the prisoners. They all appeared to be very 'regular' people. At the end of worship, there was the opportunity for newcomers to give a commitment to Christ and a number ventured forward. At this point, I did feel uncomfortable. I was taken outside my comfort zone with the praying and summoning of the Holy Spirit to be upon these people. There was the speaking in tongues. As an Anglo-Catholic by tradition, I really didn't know what to think of this; and as I say, it made me feel uncomfortable. I'm not sure what it was, I couldn't pinpoint why I was uncomfortable. I sensed in some respects there was pressure, a pushing sense of something that 'had' to happen. I struggled with this.
After worship we had small group discussions and they were very open and I enjoyed them immensely and was able to provide some input. Just before midday the warders came in and finished the session. I was asked by a prisoner to pray with and for him. I wasn't expecting this, but did what I could and hope that he felt, through my prayers, God's love. All prisoners were searched before they returned to their cells.
The afternoon session was quite different. This was for those who were committed in their faith and had some biblical knowledge and would be a bible introduction looking at the story of David and Bathsheba. First, again, we had worship led by a couple of the prisoners. A prayer, a psalm and then into song.....I have to say I was very moved by this. The freedom of expression in their worship and prayer. Unaccompanied singing....lots of songs....but not watching the time. Again, I felt very comfortable in their presence. There was the sharing of a testimony. It was a good bible study with contributions from a good number (about 20 in total attended). One recited a passage from Romans - not just a short passage, but almost a chapter, with great feeling.
We were hurried to finish and this time I was asked to finish the session with prayer. I had to be quick and thinking on my feet prayed; it was a moment that, because I was asked with no warning hadn't time to think about it, but felt humbled that I had been asked.
I had spoken, during the two sessions with one young man, the individual who had recited the verse. I was struck by his faith, but also his peace; peace with the fact that he was in prison, that he had been there for 18months and was waiting to be sentenced; a sentence that was likely to be a long one.....but he acknowledged that he had to take what the court gave him, but he was at peace that he would have company if the form of his faith. I actually felt it quite a privilege to meet and talk with him.
The eye opener of the day was a wander onto one of the wings. The wing where prisoners were 'welcomed' to the prison. The cells, that housed up to three, were tiny. Smoking was allowed in the cells so with many there was a fog of cigarette smoke. The chaplain had a number of visits to make to prisoners who had asked to see her or there was concern about. The sights and sounds were something that I would struggle to describe; and I did feel vulnerable surrounded by these people. This provided more of the image of prison and prisoners that I had expected.
On reflecting on the day, it was one that I had no preconceived ideas about. I didn't know what to expect. Talking to the volunteers, they get used to waiting. Waiting at the gate for someone to come and get them to go to the chaplaincy. I don't 'do' waiting! So it was uncomfortable for me! Inside, but in the yards and in the chaplaincy, it felt quiet and peaceful. It was only on the wing were there was considerable noise. One of the strangest things for me was the lack of communication with the outside world. Mobile phones are not allowed inside the prison. So mine was left in the car. I had absolutely no contact with the outside. This slightly unnerved me and I felt as if I was missing something! Popping out at lunchtime, for 15 minutes I was able to catch up with friends/family. But time was limited. A quick text and that was it.
Here is a place where God is truly at work. The people I met were inside serving their time. I didn't feel at all like judging them. I felt welcomed by all and very warmly so. I enjoyed meeting them and in a couple instances truly humbled.
I am so glad I was able to see the inside of a prison. I thank my placement supervisor for arranging it and the Chaplaincy Team for a very warm welcome and putting up with me for the day.