About This Book
Five years ago, I was involved with others in building a project to support those being released from prison, who wished to pursue a Christian faith. At that time, we were venturing out on a limb; nothing like what we were trying to do existed. We had no resources and little experience. The project’s leader, Simon Edwards, had just been released from prison himself, and others joined us from a similar background. We moved by faith, learning to trust God. We made mistakes and learned lessons as we picked our way through a landscape of addictions, manipulations, dangerous situations, sceptical statutory agencies, legal frameworks and impenetrable church politics.
This is the book we wish we’d had when we started.
In the quarter to March 2018, 17,904 prisoners were released in England and Wales. We might estimate that about 10 per cent of these have some kind of Christian faith (as opposed to the 45 per cent or so who put down ‘RC’ or ‘C of E’ on a form). That amounts to around 1,790 Christians. Or to put it another way, 138 people with some sort of Christian faith are released from prison in England and Wales each week.
Of course, these figures are speculative – a guesstimate – but the number looks about right. And it begs a question: where do they go? The sad fact is that many of them go back to prison.
Some may slip anonymously into a church. No questions asked, all well and good, potentially. Others, perhaps with more serious offences, will come under close supervisory arrangements, and may not be able to join themselves to a church without going through detailed risk assessments and a full disclosure of their past. In all likelihood, they will not put themselves through this and will stay out of church altogether.
Some will be rejected outright (‘I’m sorry, but we can’t accept people from the hostel down the road’); others will be treated with suspicion and perhaps even hostility by the church they enter, sometimes being shunned by their former Christian friends. Others will be greeted warmly by a church but find very little practical support; they may even be inadvertently put at risk by church members or leaders who don’t fully understand their needs.
Overall, the likelihood of a released prisoner finding a supportive environment in a church through which they can re-enter the community is slim. In fact, the situation is worse than that. For men and women who have come to Christ in prison, the reception they find in some local churches may actually increase the likelihood that they will return to custody. I have no numbers to back that up, but having worked in the field in various voluntary and professional capacities for twenty years, it is my observation and firm belief. In many cases, this isn’t because the churches released prisoners go to don’t want to help them, but because they lack understanding.
Those who have an existing church connection may fare better because they have a level of established relationship within that community. Even where a church may not be able to provide much support, at some level there is a point of belonging, and this is very important. But many new believers returning to the community from prison are not ‘cultural Christians’; they have no obvious point of contact. Even though they are Christians, the church seems like an alien environment to them.
Living in the real world
People coming out of prison have difficulties in their lives. That might seem obvious, but it has to be stated clearly. Those of us in the evangelical and charismatic parts of God’s kingdom are apt to think – and we often assert – that Jesus is ‘the answer’. By this we seem to mean that if you come to Christ and believe in Him for salvation, that that ‘salvation’ will fix everything. This is an example of ‘magical thinking’; we’re not sure how it’s supposed to work, but we feel that somehow it should.
True, Jesus’ sacrifice at Calvary cleanses us from sin. If we believe in Him, we can stand holy before God:
The vilest offender who truly believes,
That moment from Jesus a pardon receives.
We are saved from God’s wrath and share in the marvellous inheritance of Christ. Trust in Jesus Christ for salvation removes our guilt and our shame and restores our dignity. The Fall, in the sense of our isolation from God, is reversed. We are saved. We have eternal life. This is brilliant.
What salvation doesn’t do (at least, not immediately) is remove the consequences of our evil or unwise actions. Consider David and his sin with Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11–12. He committed adultery and murder, and lied and manipulated. When confronted with his sin by Nathan the prophet, he confessed it and repented before God (Psalm 51). Nevertheless, his actions seriously affected his and many other people’s lives. There were far-reaching consequences that he had to live with.
A person who has come to Christ in prison might have made extraordinary steps in their faith. They might know the Bible well and have identifiable spiritual gifts and a defined ministry. They might be an able worship leader or a prolific evangelist. They may have led more people to Christ than you have. But none of this means that they have addressed the attitudes, behaviours or core problems that took them to prison in the first place. And, as we said above, the fact that they have just come out of prison in itself means they are facing challenges.
Some of these challenges will be basic, to do with self-care and ‘coping with life’; some will be more specialised, such as drug-dependency or mental illness. Or there may be issues connected with offending behaviour or a risk that the person poses to particular groups of people. In order to provide effective support to released prisoners, you have to be able and prepared to engage with these things. To admit that a person finds it hard to control their moods or to get ahead of their long-term drug habit is not to doubt their faith or to impugn the efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice – it’s just being realistic.
The Bible tells us that ‘fervent love … will cover a multitude of sins’ (1 Peter 4:8), but it doesn’t say anything about that love being blind.
On the other hand, if we shrink back in fear and hold our guests at arm’s length or seek to put them in a ‘safeguarding’ box, we won’t be showing love at all. We will leave them more hurt and alienated than they were to start with.
We must love wisely.
Churches typically fall into two equal and opposite errors when confronted with released prisoners. When hearing that a new attender is an ‘ex-offender’ on licence, they might be inclined to hit the big red panic button and reach for their safeguarding manual, leaving the ex-offender feeling even more isolated and stigmatised. A response motivated by fear. Alternatively, they might make them into some kind of celebrity, smothering them in love and attention, having them share their faith stories in the morning service. This is dangerous. It leaves the released prisoner disorientated because trust is something they find hard – and soon they are going to be let down again. The church can’t deliver on the promises it seems to be making. It’s also dangerous because you really don’t know who this person is or what they might do. What happens when they relapse into their heroin habit?
There should be a middle way, a way motivated by the gospel of Christ, but also informed by an understanding of what pressures released prisoners might face and how to provide support for them, and that understands that this is not someone else’s problem.
The role of the Church
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me,
Because the Lord has anointed Me
To preach good tidings to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives,
And the opening of the prison to those who are bound …
This is a scripture to which we will return often throughout the book; it is the verse that Jesus opened His ministry with in the synagogue at Nazareth. It stands as His manifesto and it should also be ours. It looms behind Christ’s Commission to ‘Go … and make disciples’ (Matthew 28:19).
I believe that the Church of Jesus Christ, in all its denominations and its various expressions, must be at the forefront of ministry to the poor, the broken-hearted, the marginalised, the homeless, the addicted, and those released from prison, who might be all of the above. And to be fair, much is being done in terms of food banks and night shelters in our cities, and organisations such as Betel and Teen Challenge are well-established routes out of addiction for many.
While there have always been a few projects working with released prisoners, it has never been a core activity of the Church in this country – yet two of the four clauses in the passage above are about releasing people from prisons:
He has sent Me …
To proclaim liberty to the captives,
And the opening of the prison to those who are bound.
Is Jesus speaking metaphorically? Is He referring to those who ‘labor and are heavy laden’ (Matthew 11:28), ‘prisoners of their circumstances’, so to speak? Or those who are bound by addictions or other kinds of oppression? Or perhaps a religious law?
Jesus, in quoting this, probably does mean these things too. But Barabbas, for one, found a very literal ‘opening of the prison’. Jesus literally took his place on the cross while he walked free. I’m not trying to make a political point here. Obviously, there are people who need to be in prison for good reasons; what I am saying is that the Church should be at the forefront of receiving them when they are released and assisting their transition into the community. This is true whether or not they are believers, but it must be particularly true of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
At one level, this book will be an exploration of our response to Isaiah 61:1.
The purpose of this book
The purpose of this book is to explore some of the ways in which the Church as a body and we as Christian people can engage with men and women as they come out of prison. Along the way we will look at some pointers for receiving them into the fellowship of a local congregation in ways that are supportive and safe, but the main focus of the book will be on setting up and operating projects within the community geared toward rehabilitation and resettlement.
That might seem like a tall order. Even if you are a well-resourced church and have people available with relevant experience, you might think it feels like a big leap. You’re right: it is. But hopefully, something in what follows will help to focus you on the steps you need to take in order to make a start.
Part 1 (chapters 1 and 2) examines your motivation for wanting to get involved in this field of ministry; the key chapter is ‘Why We Should Care’, which is followed by a study of the Walk Project in Stoke-on-Trent, the project I have been privileged to be involved with from its inception. Many of the lessons described in the book are gleaned from our experience in developing and operating this service.
Part 2 (chapters 3–5) is about understanding released prisoners. Chapter 3 looks at what prisons are for and how they operate, and briefly discusses some of the history of criminal justice. If we are going to work with men and women when they come out of prison, we need to understand at least a little of what their experience has been. This leads on to chapter 4, ‘Understanding Released Prisoners’, where we seek to look at the particular challenges and problems released prisoners face.
The last chapter in this section – ‘Why People Stop Offending’ – looks briefly at how the understanding of offending behaviour has changed over the last thirty years and how this has informed the way prisoners are treated and managed following their release.
Part 3 (chapters 6–10) looks at some considerations involved in setting up a project: ‘The Role of the Local Church’ (Chapter 6), ‘Realising Your Vision’ (7) and the selection and management of your staff and volunteers (8). These chapters refer to things that will be quite specific to you and your context: you know your own locality and your motivation to do this work, you have a vision and some able co-workers who are embarking on the journey with you, and so you will need to apply these thoughts to your own situation. The following two chapters, ‘The “Strands”’ and ‘Managing Property’, are more technical and seek to draw lessons specifically from what we have learned at the Walk Project.
The final and longest section of the book, Part 4 (chapters 11–17), examines various aspects of ‘best practice’, as we and similar projects in other parts of the country have found them. Some parts of this are technical and may not be relevant to everyone.
Finally, a brief Appendix summarises the ways in which you, as an interested person or a group of people, who feel the call of God, can become involved in this ministry.
Our purpose in writing is to encourage you to pursue the vision for ministry or service that God has given you. It is essential that those embarking upon ministry projects of this or any other kind are following a genuine call of God and not attempting to fulfil some perceived need, either in themselves or in others. We work alongside prisons and the other statutory agencies who are responsible for upholding the law and ensuring the public’s safety (including our own), who may not understand us and may be suspicious of our spiritual motivation. We also have to maintain an awareness that the people we work with are likely to be manipulative and difficult from time to time.
This book is written for those with a call to work primarily with adults. While much of what follows will also apply to juveniles and young offenders, these are not the focus of the book. Working with young offenders is a separate area of ministry.
Some people will find some of the things that I have to say about safeguarding and accountability within the church challenging or difficult. In short, my argument is that church congregations should be safe places; a mutual regard for one another’s safety should be part of who we are, part of our culture. When people arrive in our midst having been recently released from prison, they should be able to be incorporated into that safe community. But for this to happen, the normal conduct of church life should demonstrate perhaps a greater level of openness and mutual accountability than we have been used to.
Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
True, some released prisoners do present issues of safeguarding, but in my experience, threats to vulnerable congregations come from many other places too.
Use of language
What we are saying in this book pertains to men and women; however, some 90 per cent of released prisoners are men. Most of my personal experience has been supporting men, either inside or outside prison, and the Walk Project, at the time of writing, is specifically a men’s ministry. So, while I’ve tried to use gender-appropriate language where possible, there is a bias in most chapters towards working with a male client group. I have also tried to write in accessible English for a non-specialist readership.
Use of names
In general, where the people I refer to have been in contact with the criminal justice system, I have used aliases to disguise their identity. The exception to this is where the person is a member of Walk staff or has a separate public profile; this applies to Simon Edwards and Wez Johnson.
Citations and references
This is not an academic work or textbook; it is intended to be a useful manual for church leaders and anyone else who has an interest in supporting released prisoners from a Christian perspective. Nevertheless, I have tried not to make any unsupported assertions; where I have used statistics or other sources of information – conscious that these are susceptible to be misapplied – I have referred back to my source and, where appropriate, to the original research.
There is a full bibliography at the back of the book, along with a short selection of books and other resources that I have found particularly helpful.
Ministry of Justice, 2018 (accessed 20th August 2018).
Fanny J Crosby, ‘To God Be the Glory’, 1820–1915.