In my life I have to say I have been in and out of prison. Stangeways, Wandsworth, Holloway, Shotts, and the Youth Offenders Prison in Jamaica. I’m happy to report that with all of them I have been in and out in a few hours and never detained at Her Majesties pleasure.
I nearly started a Prison riot in Strangeways! At 18 I was very naive – and the Salvation Army Band and Tambourine group were invited to lead the inmates and staff in their Christmas Carol Service. All was going well until our group of young ladies all between the ages of 18 – 30 got up to “perform”. This tambourine routine began with us, backs to the audience, bent over! Seriouisly? What were we thinking! There we were in steamed stockings with our backs to over 300 men who had been incarcerated for however many months, or years. Our presence stimulated a reaction that I had never anticipated. The place was in an uproar. We could hardly hear the 35 piece brass band for the wolf whistles and raucous comments that were being shouted out from the floor. With the instruction of the Prison Officers we had to stop sharply. It took a while to regain order.
The next time I was in a prison was in Holloway during my training for Salvation Army Officership, and for part of my time there I was in the young family wing, talking to the women prisoners about family life. The maternity wing had just been closed in Holloway so babies would no longer be born in prison and have it on their birth certificate. Yet nursing mothers were allowed to keep their babies with them while they served their sentence. I felt very frightened and timid in that place, and actually felt physically sick – it was such a relief to leave. Maybe the Strangeways experience had left an impression on me. I was always glad when I was out of there and I heard the key lock the door behind me.
The third time was when my husband and I were in pastoral charge in Shotts and leading regular Bible Studies was part of our remit, shared on the Churches Together rota. This was a completely different experience. This was a small group of men who had voluntarily come to learn about God’s love and who I accepted as people just like me. I grew to love them, and really enjoyed that time when it came round. These men became my friends, and sometimes it was sad to see them discharged as that meant losing contact completely, although some did write after release.
On one day I was talking to one of the guys who I had really warmed to. Talking about God and His great love; smiling and reading scripture together, when he suddenly asked me, “But does God really love me, even after I murdered my wife and two children?” I just looked him in the eye and was speechless. How could this really lovely man be capable of such an atrocity, was he being serious? It appeared by the reaction of others that this was no sick joke – this was a moment where the rubber really did hit the road. He carried on looking intently at me for my answer, and suddenly from deep within me, by passing all my reasoning and my fear I heard my voice say – “Yes, God really does love you and offers you his forgiveness”. In that place God spoke profoundly and we prayed and God s peace surrounded us in a way I’d seldom known before. Even in that high security wing with the most notorious of criminals God is there.
Thank You God for changed lives, and forgiveness – even when human reason and logic says No way – you say O yes!
Jesus – during this Lenten season – remind me again that you are always where I would least expect to find you.
Lord hear us – Lord graciously hear us!