The Church Behind Bars

Wednesday 24th March saw Fr Patrick Cope return to St Bernadette’s, Nunthorpe, where some 28 years ago he served as Deacon, in order to speak to the Cleveland Newman Circle on The Church Behind Bars. As the Bishop’s Adviser on Prisons and HM Prison Service North East Regional Chaplain, he was able to give a very full account of the prisons and institutions in our region, which runs from the Scottish border to the Humber River. He began by explaining that the Prison Service really did do their work on behalf of the local community and thought that, given 90% of prisoners will be released (albeit for a very short time in some cases), local citizens do have a right to know what goes on inside of them.

Fr Pat’s patch covers all Faiths, throughout a wide range of institutions – young offenders, juveniles, local prisons, remand centres, top security, young females and adult women. Deerbolt, situated on the outskirts of Barnard Castle, is a purpose-built Young Offenders Institution taking up to 600 young people from the North of England, some also from the North West as well. Yes, the offenders had done wrong but often they are very damaged people with no structure to their life. Being in prison may be the first time that they have received regular meals, a bed with clean covers or even clean clothes to wear. Serving a sentence could mean the opportunity for some education, for some exercise in the gym or even a time to break free from the bad influences in their life. Many do not have a supportive family background; there could be a succession of fathers or uncles and their own father may very well be serving time as well. They have often left education at an early stage; many cannot read, write or lack even the basic qualifications. It is not unknown for a chaplain to have to write a young offender’s love letter to their girlfriend.

Kirklevington Grange, near Yarm, is a category C semi-open prison taking up to 300 men serving medium and long-term sentences but who are coming to the end of their time in custody. With a catchment area of Carlisle to Leeds, it is intended for adult male offenders hoping to settle on release, in the North East of England. Many work locally in a voluntary capacity, and go home on leave one day per week, which may be extended to entire weekends when they become ready for resettlement and need to build up better relations with their own family. It is often loved ones who are punished more when a custodial sentence is received, particularly if the imprisonment takes place a long way from home. A day’s journey once a month from Liverpool to Kirklevington with three small children in tow is no easy matter.

For the past eight years, Northallerton Prison has served as a Young Offender Institution for prisoners serving sentences less than two years. This old Victorian prison is the second oldest in the country whose biggest problem, in many ways, is in trying to maintain the old, crumbling building. It houses up to 250 offenders.

Askham Grange, near York, is a semi-open prison which houses women prisoners and young offenders. It also offers the opportunity for up to 10 mothers to maintain full-time care of their child or children whilst in custody. It facilitates a comprehensive resettlement regime for long and, increasingly, short-stay residents. The key to the delivery of the regime is the maintenance of decent and respectful relationships between all who live, work and visit there. Positive family relationships and learning is provided in parallel with educational and work skills, and personal development. Many of the girls and young women have jobs in the community, some working at The Bar Convent, and the Catholic prisoners attend Mass at the Church of Our Lady, Acomb.

Outside of York, Full Sutton Prison at Pocklington is a modern, purpose-built, maximum security prison for men in categories A and B. It holds, in conditions of high security, up to 700 of the most difficult and dangerous criminals in the country. A full time priest/chaplain of the Salford Diocese works there and, with a number of terrorists being held, tackling a Muslim extremist agenda is very much part of their work.

Frankland Prison, in Brasside, Durham offers accommodation with single cell occupancy to category A and B adult men serving four years and over, IPP (indeterminate sentence for public protection) or Life sentences plus High and Standard Risk category A prisoners on remand. It contains special, more highly secure units within the prison for sex offenders and people with multiple personalities who need to be held separately for their own protection, for fear of reprisals. Prisons really are very brutal places where the law of the jungle does rule. A prison chaplain’s role is very much in getting prisoners to understand that they are in prison just as much as the next man. However, sex offenders and those who have committed crimes against children are considered to at the bottom of the pile and are readily attacked or assaulted in what can become a very tense situation.

Everthorpe Prison, near Hull, houses up to 700 category C, medium-sentence prisoners in modern house-block cellular accommodation. The 2005 expansion programme included a new workshop complex, gym and visitors centre. Here they do a lot of work with drug and alcohol addictions and with those who are about to be resettled, although they do not allow day releases. Close by, The Wolds Prison, Market Weighton, is a privately run category C prison for men, who are generally medium to long-term sentence prisoners. It holds between 350-400 prisoners in six units of single and double cells; some single cells have been doubled up to accommodate extra prisoners. Finally, Hull Prison is a very old, Victorian prison which was expanded in 2002 to include four new wings, a new healthcare centre, a new sports hall, a new multi-faith centre and refurbishment of the kitchen, educational areas and workshops. It is a male local prison/remand centre housing over 1,000 prisoners.

It is probably true to say that the Prison Service was the first place in the Church where the term Chaplaincy was really developed. Nowadays Chaplaincy Teams are comprised of Priests, Permanent Deacons, Religious Sisters and Brothers, plus Lay Men and Women who act as chaplains. In the past, each prison would have had a full-time Anglican Chaplain with a Roman Catholic Priest and Methodist Minister helping out on a part-time basis. There were very, very few requests from other Faiths. Now, with a multi-cultural society, this has changed out of all recognition. A Muslim Imam will visit and Sikhs, Hindus and Buddhists are all catered for. Chaplaincies, therefore, have become grounded as multi-faith set-ups. All Chapels in prison are Christian; increasingly however, they ecumenically share a chapel, and larger prisons also have a World Faith Room, or Mosque, which allows for Muslim ablutions as well. The aim for a Christian chapel in prison is to be a place of hospitality for other Faiths. This may not be ideal for some but it is the best working practice that we have. For instance, at Deerbolt, they cover any Christian icons when the Muslims use the space and then revert it back into being a chapel again afterwards.

Working with people from other Faiths is, Fr Pat thought, one of the blessings of his work which is not as readily available when you are a Parish Priest. Chaplains do respond to the needs of their own Faith but also will assist their colleagues from other Faiths if called upon to do so. They all spend some time working on statutory, generic duties in the prison which is proving a very good way of bringing them together as a Chaplaincy Team; it helps to build absolute trust and mutual respect. Proselytising is not acceptable and will not be tolerated by the Prison Service.

Up to about three quarters of those in prison are found to be suffering from two or more mental disorders. They are in prison when really they should be confined to secure mental units where their illness or disorder could be addressed. Nearly half of all prisoners are first time offenders but they do go on to become multiple offenders. By the time they leave, they have often become more versed in criminal activities and eventually go on to become long-term offenders. Nearly 80% of prisoners re-offend within two years and many within only a few months; thus creating a revolving door syndrome.

Eighteen months ago, the Police, the Prisons and the Probation Service were all doing their own thing, with very little communication between them. The whole structure was re-arranged so that all agencies could come together under one umbrella and the Ministry of Justice was formed. Angela McGuinness is the North East’s Regional Offender Manager, leading the North East team to deliver National Offender Management Services locally. She is in overall charge of the Probation and Prison Service, including the budgeting, in the North East.

At the start of March, a large conference was held in Newcastle where the Ministry of Justice positively asked what Faith communities could offer in real practical terms. Great platitudes are often heard around the Prison Service which can be followed by a deafening silence when actual help is needed upon the release of individual prisoners. The situation has improved of late, in that nobody should be released without having some form of accommodation to go to. However, that accommodation can be woefully inadequate and inappropriate; say in sending a youngster to a hostel housing older, maybe alcoholic, former offenders. Yes, it is better, but it is still an issue which needs to be addressed.

The nature of support, upon release, and how it is managed is another question. With higher targets and aims, the Probation Service is now probably a lot tighter on conditions than in the past. If someone is just 10 minutes late for a Probation appointment, they are deemed to have breached their licence and can find themselves under arrest and taken back into prison. Such inflexibility only reinforces hatred against authority. The number of custodial sentences for non violent crime is also far too high because there is no flexibility. In the past, it was possible to argue for mitigating circumstances but now that is not so. Non-custodial sentences are never looked at properly either. Both major political parties are not realistic enough in their assessment and it was felt that with a General Election looming, they would like to be seen acting tough. It is estimated that, in England and Wales by the summer, there will be 89,000 people in prison. Outside of this country, others offer different systems. The Churchill Trust in Australia and New Zealand advocate restorative justice whereas, at the other end of the scale, in the Philippines prisons can be nightmarish and horrendous.

It is known that drugs are a very serious contributor, both to crime being committed and to trouble occurring inside British prisons. Eighty five per cent of all offences are said to be drug-related. Thieving and burglaries, particularly (although not exclusively) amongst the young do take place because people are desperate for drugs. Both drugs and mobile phones are very big issues inside prison and almost daily intelligence briefings occur to pass on details and guidance to prison staff. Children have been known to smuggle drugs in and in one case, even a grandmother was used! Drug rehabilitation does take place at Deerbolt but it is very under-resourced.

Every day in prison, each new prisoner admitted has to be seen by the Governor, the Chaplain and the Chief Medical Officer. The Chaplain’s role is to check that the person is alright; to make a layman’s assessment of vulnerability. Each day, he also sees those who are in healthcare and those who are in the segregation unit. Anyone who is on an act of self harm review is observed each day and that watch will include the Chaplain. Other than that, it is each prisoner’s own free choice whether they see him or her. Chaplains do, of their own accord, frequently follow up prisoners who they have built up a relationship with. At Deerbolt, between 200 and 250 prisoners go to Mass each week.

Despite the full support of each Bishop, such Chaplaincy work, which goes on inside prisons, still needs advertising. It is a system which lends itself to Lay involvement and some active SVP groups do work in this area. Each year, there is a Prisoners Week, which last took place from 15th-21st November 2009, and a Prisoners’ Sunday. It would be good to think that all parishes would consider the different ways in which they could support their local prisons and help integrate those offenders who were being released back into the community.

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