The prospect of going to Brixton Prison for a lecture on "A place of Redemption: What is a Christian Approach to Criminal Justice" to be given by Archishop Vincent Nichols, intrigued but at the same time created not a little apprehension.
Arrival at the prison visitor centre was required at least an hour in advance of the scheduled start time for the lecture; biometric, photographic and documentary ID were necessary along with body search and airport style scanners. Every step taken had to be with an escort.
Prisons are places generally out of sight out of mind so far as I am concerned ,which means that the plight of prisoners too, is not one that is reflected upon very much (by me anyway) other than the occasional newspaper article to the effect that someone whose crimes were discovered, got his just desserts when handed down a long sentence by the courts.
The lecture was part of an afternoon of learning, prayer, soul singing, prison food, talks, films and social conversations. Fittingly we (about 50 of us) were all escorted to the Victorian prison chapel where unnervingly the heavy metal barred doors were locked and bolted - maybe the only way to keep people inside churches these days.
The six soul singer members of a London choir, began singing quietly whilst the rest of us headed for the prison grub and brew. Gradually the soul singing became stronger; the gGovernor was introduced and several prisoners were courageous enough to join us (there were numerous guards scattered around each with large chains of clanking keys). Then we became a congregation. All the while the sounds from the main jail permeated the chapel: Men shouting outside, gates clanging noisely, keys rattling, people arguing loudly, mixed with what were probably the sounds of an impromptu football match going on in the nearby yard.
Soul singing in the Chapel resonated with this charged atmosphere. There were many moving moments. For me these incuded the Governor joining in with his men and us with the soul singers' rendition of Amazing Grace. Prisoners' prayers especially one who sought prayers for "everyone who has no one" provoked (for me) far more thought than I am slightly ashamed to admit often do more 'ordinary' bidding prayers.
The Archbishop's lecture key note was the question about whether prison is a place of destruction or redemption. He quoted the rather sad statistic that when Ken Clarke our current Secretary of State for Justice last held that role some 10 years or so ago, the UK prison population numbered about 43,000 whereas today it is c. 86,000 and ranks amongst the worst in Europe though I think not as bad as in the USA.
The Catholic charity 'PACT' is initiating with success apparently, a scheme whereby handfuls of volunteers centred on specific gaols, try to befriend inmates especially new prisoners and recently released ones. The films included one ex prisoner who was helped but reoffended after a couple of years. He said how embarrased he was to be a failure but how amazed he was that the Church did not regard him as such. It transpired that those couple of years outside were the longest time out of jail he had enjoyed for 30 years. The impression left was that next time freedom would be longer still if not permanent.
There were some fun moments too: A man who I recalled from a parish discussion group we were both part of when our children were younger, was trying to leave early and asked a guard if he could have time off for good behaviour; I spied a Wimbledon College tie in the scrum around the bag area on the way out and commented that it was quite unsurpising to see such ties in that place. Another man who I had last met when he was a priest in (unfashionable) south London Peckham and had not seen for years, chatted whilst in the exit queue (not being able to slip away quietly as one might normally do from a seminar event is a very small example of an effect of losing personal freedom). I was pleased to learn that he has since become an area bishop. A journalist/TV personality who I did not recognise but upon her introducing herself, told me how irritating it can be to be recognised by members of the public. Her quips about the diffuculties being experienced by her young niece in finding boyfriends were I told her, mirrored by the experiences of maytrees max.
Whatever causes people to have to spend time behind bars, the facts that they are as we are, human and in need of redemption will be the abiding lesson taken from Brixton Prison by all who had the privilege of attending with PACT, the Governor and Archbishop for learning in the Chapel this week.