Choral Evensong 9th February 2020
Inside and Outside: Prison Chaplaincy at HMP Bronzefield
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I’ve just spent a week at HMP Bronzefield, the largest women’s prison in the UK. There are 530 residents. It’s all categories, and maximum security. Whether women have been arrested on terrorist-related charges or been caught shoplifting, they’re all inside together. When I close my eyes, I see faces of staff and residents who have shared their time and their stories with me as I’ve worked alongside the chaplaincy team. I’ve been asked to convey residents’ and staff’s prayers for all of you, and through the Spirit there is a unique bond flowing between their community and ours.
Tonight Amos presents us with the urgent need for transformation because of the wild injustices which have ravaged a society and torn people away from the solid anchor of love of neighbour, love of God, and love of self. Rampant inequality dehumanises people. There are consequences and hardship, and no easy answers.
In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he implores that community to seek reconciliation and mutual respect. Do not desensitise yourselves to one another, and the love of God will abound simply through the way in which you see each other. If everyone is willing to accept, however hesitatingly, that the person beside them is of infinite worth and deserves love, there is hope for authentic repair, even when relationships are severely damaged.
At Bronzefield, there is a large multi-faith chaplaincy team. They’re trusted, and they’re needed, too. Spiritual care is vital in residents’ sense of dignity and hope, regardless of religious background. The prison has people from over 30 nationalities and 20 religions. Every day a Duty Chaplain of any faith will visit the Separation and Care unit and the Healthcare Unit, and meet with new residents too. Separation and Care are solitary cells in which prisoners will have reduced opportunity to socialise, go outside, or access various resources. Most will be there as a form of discipline, for their own safety, and for the safety of others. Some are there because they prefer it to the noise and routine of the house blocks, though it’s not meant to function as an enjoyable break. Healthcare is a set of rooms for residents who are in urgent need, primarily due to mental health issues. If someone is self-harming, suicidal, or needing regular observation, they’ll be there. There are four blocks where most of the residents are housed. House Block 1 is for recent arrivals who are detoxing from alcohol and drugs. Block 2 is for those on remand. Block 3 is for residents who have been sentenced, and Block 4 is also for women on long-term sentences or with excellent behaviour. There is also Phoenix House, for women who are allowed to go out to work during the day and return in the evenings, and the Mother and Baby Unit, for residents who have infants up to 18 months old.
The circumstances for all of these women, whether they are in the prison for a few days or several years, are highly complex. The proportion of people suffering with mental health conditions, substance misuse, histories of abuse, and domestic violence, is horrifically high. One officer I met explained that the prison holds a mirror up to society’s most damaging problems, concentrating the consequences of systemic poverty, abuse and inequality within its walls. Criminals and victims, insiders and outsiders, and the language of inclusion and exclusion, are all open question, as well as given tight boundaries. At the end of the day, one group of people have keys and can go home. The others must stay behind.
By the time they arrive, they have been through a system that can separate, humiliate, and judge. The prison is meant to be a place that can ‘press pause’ on someone’s chaos, to allow opportunities for education, spiritual care, food, shelter, and skill-building in the context of temporary exclusion. It doesn’t always work that way, but this is the theory. Prison is a punishment. It is also, perhaps counter-intuitively, a chance for growth. I spoke to a male caseworker, who agreed that simply by caring and doing his job, he might be a rare or even unique example of a man who is not exploiting or abusing the woman he’s working with. Women can learn skills that will benefit them outside, but also simply prove that they can do something, and accomplish something. Whatever the pause button looks like for a resident, the play button will have to be pressed. For some this means the joy of freedom and for others the terror of going back to a place or a person that might be high-risk or even fatal.
Every morning, a chaplain meets women who are being released. One day I went with him. I met five women. Mary is from Ireland, a proud grandmother, and she has cancer. She asks me to bless her Bible, rosary beads and prayer cards. After the blessing she kisses them all and says, ‘I like holy things’, and holds them close. It’s not clear who will be coming to pick her up today, or where she’ll go. Phoebe is homeless, and has been in prison for only a few days. She will go with a caseworker to a council in London, who will try to advocate for her right to housing. There are no guarantees. She’s cold and asks for extra clothes. There is Ruth, full of banter and euphoria, checking every couple of minutes to see whether her boyfriend has come to pick her up. He arrives. She looks overjoyed. It’s hard to tell how he feels - something like a mixture of weariness and curiosity.
Melanie, who has a huge bag of clothes and an easygoing manner, has been in prison for several months. It’s not her first time. She is heavily pregnant and I ask when she’s due – ‘five weeks!’ She says, beaming. ‘Just in time.’ I do some quick maths in my head. Each woman works in the prison if they can. They earn a little money and they have a choice of what they can do. Melanie taught residents to read. She loved it. ‘It was easy for me, but really tough for them,’ she tells me.
Sarah, who is the youngest and by far the smallest, has a quick wit and big smile, but is very anxious. She tells me that before arriving in prison a few days ago she was sleeping in a car, and had pneumonia. She was on an IV for most of her short time inside. No one is coming to pick her up. When everyone is getting ready to go, she leaves first, and asks to go on her own. Like many in their first minutes of leaving, she stops at the off license. Later, Simeon and I walk slowly to the train station. His role is to be safe and compassionate company across the threshold between inside and outside. Acutely aware of people’s privacy and autonomy, his role is complex. He is not an extension of security or surveillance, but a minister who provides an hour of practical and pastoral support if women want it. We arrive at the station. On one side we see Ruth and her boyfriend, smiling and excited about the day ahead. On the other we see Sarah, a little drunk at 9.30 in the morning, pacing the platform. The gap between them felt immense. The uncertainty of what their next hours would bring weighs on my mind now.
On the way back, we pass a makeshift hut on the side of the Anglican church near the prison. A painting depicts Joseph, Mary, and Jesus as everyday people, as a poor family, a local family, a refugee family, a Flight into Egypt family. For many of the women in prison, the image of a man tenderly holding a child will create a desire stronger than most of us could imagine. For others, it will be a troubling or painful image. The walls of the little shed, a roadside shrine really, are spaces for women leaving Bronzefield to sign their names and leave messages. The phrase repeated again and again is, ‘Be safe.’ The bag at the bottom of the shrine is prison-issue. It’s often filled, quietly and anonymously, with a sleeping bag and useful things the women might need.
‘Be kind to one another,’ Paul says. And, ‘…putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbours, for we are members of one another.’
There are three things we can do here in Hampstead, right now, to speak the truth to our neighbours and put our beliefs into action. We can pray for the residents and staff at Bronzefield. We can offer support as a volunteer – there are many ways to do this! And, we can be politically engaged, advocating for better housing and increased opportunities for women and girls so that cycles of abuse and poverty can be broken. All of these are ways to speak the truth. As Christians, we are called, and obligated, to go not where we are merely wanted, but where we are needed. There is a huge need here.
If you saw any of these women walk into church for a service, and you didn’t know they’d been in Bronzefield, how would you welcome them? If you saw them walk in and you knew they had been in prison last week, how would you welcome them?
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