Spiritual work in prisons - some guidance

Keith Sherwood, St. Albans, England [SEE PROFILE BELOW]

Precious Seed

Voluntary Christian prison work covers many areas

The following list demonstrates the large variety of involvement available to Christians in prisons.

  1. Visiting individual prisoners on a regular basis, usually as an official Prison Visitor or daily help within the chaplaincy team which can take many forms. Most people come in once or twice each week. 
  2. Help with the administration in the chapel offices as most chaplaincy teams have no administrator and need help with appointment slips, filing, chapel lists, etc.
  3. Help on courses run for prisoners within the chapel. These include the Sycamore Tree course (Victim Awareness) which is sponsored by the Prison fellowship or assistance with Bible classes which can take place during the day or in the evenings.
  4. Assistance with organized Christian evenings and support in areas that are not identified as Christian such as: Visit Play Areas, Visitors Centres, Library (helping prisoners record stories for their children), Education, as many prisoners struggle with basic numeracy and literacy, whilst others operate at degree level, cookery classes. 
  5. Help in trade skills (limited possibilities), Victim Awareness programme, (presented by Christians but accredited by an external body). This includes courses such as: Living with Loss (running in prisons in the Eastern area) and Keeping Families Together, Managing Debt, etc.

The introductory procedures

For any such work one must contact the Chaplain or Governor and he will want full personal details and referees that he can contact. The Chaplain or Voluntary Sector Co-ordinator (it is often the Chaplain) will invite you in and tell you of all the areas where help is needed or where he feels he can fit in your own idea of what you would like to do with others. He will normally introduce you to the person managing the area in which your skills and time availability can best be used.

If accepted, security forms will have to be submitted with photos and your passport taken in to be photocopied by the voluntary sector co-ordinator or chaplain. It might take up to three months from application to starting or maybe longer as the Prison Service is now much stricter on security clearances. If you have any criminal convictions, however minor, it is always best to declare them, as the police check will identify them.

Some rules

You will be advised of how you are to conduct yourself in prison by the chaplain, voluntary sector coordinator or security staff. Please try and take in everything and obey every bit of advice. The prison staff are more aware than you or me as to where problems can occur. If you are not sure about something please ask. Your safety is paramount.

My advice is 

Attend every security talk you can – these ha ppen on various days in the week and can often be arranged to fit in with your situation. At the prison I visit these are also done on a Saturday morning. 

Try to get along to any events you are invited to – these can include Easter and Christmas services in the chapel, baptisms, Governor’s ‘thank you evenings’ to volunteers, etc. 

Build good relationships with the prison officers and try to attend at least some social events and prayer groups run by Prison Fellowship. You might not join the Prison Fellowship but such events are most useful as you learn what else is going on, or maybe some useful information on the prisoners you have contact with. We all work together. Prison Fellowship have used me as a conduit for practical help they wanted to give to an exprisoner and his family when he was released, simply because I knew them all personally, and every contact is useful. 

Never be critical of the way the chaplain runs the chaplaincy teams – this includes his/her practice on baptism, etc. The chaplain is your most important and influential prison contact. No chaplain minds that you disagree with him/her on some matter and teach differently. Some enjoy the richness that different approaches bring. You are in the prison to help men on their journey to faith in Christ. You are not there to convert everyone to a Christian faith, but you may have the privilege of seeing a person become a Christian. Open evangelism is not permitted, generally in prisons, but teaching and exploring issues of faith is. Every chaplain has a huge workload that you can only appreciate by being familiar with prison processes and the last thing she/he needs are people who cause more anxiety. Remember the prisoners need every encouragement and they are the reason why you are there. The chaplain himself also needs encouragement. Remember that chaplains work with the men much more than we do as volunteers. The co-ordinating chaplain is responsible for all volunteers working in the chaplaincy.

Keep in mind that prison is a challenging environment – the chaplain has a responsibility to ensure that all faiths are treated with equal respect. This is right and in no way diminishes the Christian faith. We live in a multifaith and multi-cultural society. Prison is a microcosm of that society. Remember that you are in a prison and be wise in your words and your actions. Remember to treat the prisoners as your equals. Do not talk down to prisoners – chaplains will not tolerate this and neither will prisoners. You can learn a great deal from them in the development of your faith as prisoners do not tolerate anything less than reality.

Some rules you will have to follow in prison are: 

  • Avoid physical conduct of an intimate character – shake hands but do not all join hands for prayer or lay hands on prisoners while praying with them because the physical contact could be misread. 
  • Never ask a prisoner why he or she is in prison. 
  • Everyone should dress modestly – nothing too tight, nothing too short, nothing too revealing. Prisoners appreciate the company of members of the opposite sex. However, you need to remember that prisoners have often been away from their wives or husbands for a long time. Many male prisoners appreciate the ‘mother’ aspect of ladies visiting and many female prisoners will value the older ‘father’ aspect of men visiting. 
  • Never take anything out of the prison for a prisoner – not even a note or a letter. 
  • Never bring anything in for a prisoner. If there is some innocent thing you want to give to a prisoner, a Christian book for example, always give it to the chaplain to give to the prisoner once it has been approved by the Security Department. 
  • Never write down any detail to give to a prisoner on a receipt, etc. – Details on a receipt could be in the hands of criminals outside within the hour. 
  • Never give a prisoner your full name, address or telephone numbers – Get details from them so you can contact them when they are released – always ask the chaplain if he thinks it is OK; he cannot be definitive but he knows every detail on the person’s record including all assessments of his character and will give the best advice he can. 
  • Under no circumstances ever give prisoners money. 
  • If there is something you are worried about, always report it to the chaplain or the Prison Security Department. 
  • If something goes missing that could be dangerous, report it immediately, a glass coffee jar, for example (this happened to me and now I take in only plastic jars), before you leave the prison. Do not worry that it might count against you, that is never the attitude of the prison authority (it would be if they found out and you had not said!), they are used to problems, identifying how they happened and trying to eliminate them occurring again. 
  • Read every security leaflet you are given. 
  • Never take a mobile phone, penknife or scissors, etc, into prison. These are banned items. Each prison will let you know what you can or cannot take in. I will not even use staples for Bible notes. 
  • Never take off a jacket nor leave personal possessions in your pockets. Ask the chaplain to lock them in an office. 
  • If you give out pens make sure you count them out and back.

This is just to give an idea of some of the simple and practical rules that you will be told about. Do not be discouraged by this list. I have never in nineteen years had a single problem, never had anything stolen by my groups, never been threatened, never needed help because of trouble in the group. Problems do occur but chaplains and officers are there to help and support you. If you have any fears or concerns, these should be raised with the chaplain.

There is a need for commitment to this work

There are some expenditures to be made on materials used in the work, e.g., literature, and the support of your assembly or others as co-partners in this work may need to be sought. Also the work does tend to override other matters both personal and assemblywise. You need to remember that the prison timetable may not fit into your personal one and this can mean your day or time is changed and it may end up clashing with a meeting night. If called to this work it might be wise for you to count the cost now before starting – not when it happens.

Also, there might be times when, for a variety of reasons beyond your control, the numbers attending drop. This happened to my wife and me when the day was changed and those that came to us had commitments on the new night within the prison. We ended up with only one man. Every other person on the team at that time stopped coming because it clashed with something else. But our commitment to the work and to him was total. It picked up in the end and we got up to over thirty men. We always thanked the one man for keeping us going.

You will need to build up a visiting team

Your team will consist of every Christian who is in the prison – prisoners/chaplaincy and staff plus other volunteers who go into prison at times you do not. Of those you invite to help, you will find very few who stick at it, but never be discouraged – if it is of God, He will send the right people as you need them. In prison there are more disadvantaged people than in any other population group. Some have never known family love, cannot read or write, are mentally depressed, weak, shy, aggressive, lacking in confidence, and have been in prison time and time again. Others will never get a visit from a friend or family.

You may get a helper who is shy and hardly ever speaks. This does not matter, for many shy prisoners will relate to this – that means something. A Christian who for some reason or another has had his family life shattered can help prisoners from broken homes more than you might be able to. This is a work for every kind of believer for you will be dealing with a diverse population. You will meet some fine Christians and be seen as helpful by the chaplain. You might even get unsaved helpers at times and there is no better place for them. Men in prison are generally very straightforward. ‘If you do not believe the Bible then you are not a Christian in prisoners’ eyes’; even on moral issues they will be quite clear even if weak themselves. It is for this reason that I say your ‘real’ team embraces the believers who come with you as well as believers in the prison, and your work can be as necessary to some who come in with you as it is to the prisoners themselves.

Hopefully, in the end you will have two to four others who will stick the course and be as enthusiastic as you are about the work. I say these things not to put you off but to ask you to be pragmatic and patient – the work is very rewarding – beyond what you can imagine – not once in over nineteen years have I, or my present team, ever found it to be a chore.

Note. This is a small edited extract from a very practical and detailed ‘Handbook’ that our brother has prepared. It is available only from him as follows:
The document is copyright and cannot be reproduced in whole or in any part without the written permission of Leonard Keith Sherwood, 44 Silverthorn Drive, Longdean Park, Hemel Hempstead, Herts HP3 8BX.

Editor’s Note

Our brother Keith Sherwood has been doing a spiritual work in Her Majesty’s prisons for nineteen years now. This means that he brings a great deal of experience to a service that most of us know little about. Here then is a sample of very practical and down to earth advice for those willing to pray for prison ministries or be involved in them personally.

The item that follows is not so much an article, as we usually have, but extracts from Keith’s recently published handbook of guidance for Christian visitors to prisons called, Manual for Prison Bible Readings. Some of the comments will read strangely to us as they represent current prison chaplaincy policy and ethos. We cannot dictate the terms of a ministry in an H.M. Prison establishment, but Christian input is possible and welcomed. What therefore this ‘taster’ article sets out to do is to provide an insight into what to expect and how to conduct a prison ministry, both for those already involved in one and those thinking about commencing such a work.

It would be strongly advisable before making an application for access to a prison to first obtain a full copy of this document as directed at the foot of the article.

AUTHOR PROFILE: KEITH SHERWOOD trusted The Lord Jesus Christ through the evangelistic visitation of Ron Smith at the RAF Camp in Bruggen, Germany. For the last 23 years he has been in fellowship with the assembly meeting in Lattimore Hall, St Albans.