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Redemption in the dark

Nick Jones

To mark Prisons Week later this month1, Nick Jones describes the gritty realities and unexpected epiphanies of his vocation among young offenders barred from society.


'That was mad!' said the young offender who had bustled up to me after a Communion service in the prison chapel. The service had been quiet and reverential. 'Mad in what way?' I enquired. 'Using bread and wine to think about Jesus and what he's done for us. I really felt something.' He paused and then added: 'Was that something you came up with, Father?' I resisted the temptation of the ultimate plagiarism, let alone blasphemy, but instead patiently explained and smiled inwardly with satisfaction. 'Mad', after all, is the ultimate compliment from those I work with.

I could recount many similarly marvellous stories from working behind bars over the last four years. My working week is spent engaging with our young people individually and on groups and courses as well in services; leading a multi-faith team made up of employees, sessional chaplains and volunteers; delivering restorative justice opportunities; and, generally, like St Francis, preaching the Gospel using words only if necessary.



The number of under-18s in custody has fallen sharply in recent years due to the increased use of out of court disposals, a wider range of community orders and a dramatic decline in child arrests. With custody now a last resort, those who are detained are inevitably our prolific and serious offenders. Almost always, they come from our most deprived outer and inner city estates and boroughs. It's no surprise therefore that the institutions that hold them cope with violence, volatility and self-harm on a regular basis, though suicide is mercifully rare.

This is my world, where high forbidding walls, razor wire, locked gates and doors proliferate. It is both an employment and a vocation. 'How could we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?'2 was a question the ancient Israelites asked in the Babylonian exile. It is a question I continue to ask in prisons.



It remains on statute in England and Wales that a prison must have an Anglican priest as well as a governor and prison officers.3 Nowadays, this provision is extended to all faiths. Any prisoner has a right to a weekly act of worship in their faith tradition, as well as to regular instruction in that faith from a chaplain qualified to do this. Hence the presence of a chaplaincy team in all our jails.

All new arrivals in custody must be seen by a chaplain, together with those on hospital wings and segregation units, as well all those about to be discharged. The Prison Service also has its own detailed instructions onfaith and pastoral care that apply in all prisons (public and private). The prison governor must ensure these are adhered to.

This makes the chaplains very visible - the priest in her clerical collar; the imam's prayer cap; and the Sikh chaplain in his turban. We become known as human beings and as colleagues. Yet, we are also a sign of difference, of another way to be, characterised by forgiveness and love. You might say our presence is a sign of the kingdom.

Prison chaplains serve two masters. Each chaplain will have the appropriate qualifications and licence/ endorsement required by their faith tradition. Yet, it is HM Prison Service who employs or appoints us. Therefore we serve the governor also with the full obligations and rights set out in our terms and conditions. We carry keys and have responsibility for safely operating locks. We attend prison meetings. Mine is a senior management role too, sharing with others in strategic decisions at our establishment.



So we are insiders, which has great advantages. However, this means we share in the flaws and failings of the institution too; and there are inevitable compromises. As I learnt from a very wise priest, not every issue is a 'crucifixion' issue, so we must choose our battles wisely.

I am also a Companion of the Northumbria Community, a new monastic order inspired by the Northumbrian landscape and the Northern Saints from the Celtic period such as Aidan, Brigid and Cuthbert. We are a dispersed and international community that keeps a Mother House near Alnwick and a shared Rule of Life around Availability and Vulnerability.4

We stress that we are available to God and to others, which helps enormously in making sense of my prison work, where availability to others is relentless. The phone goes incessantly. I can't move around the prison without the constant cry of 'Father! Father!' and the consequential requests. Sometimes it is a call of desperation and I will need to down tools and listen. Other times, it is simpler. One perennial request is for rosary beads, which may provide solace through the dark hours.



No two days are the same. In holiday seasons, we are even busier as we cover for each other. At worship, I have been known to provide the welcome, lead every part of the service including the music, and serve the refreshments afterwards. In this demanding atmosphere, I know I must pause somehow. Like the Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, I believe in the importance of both Action and Contemplation.5 In my case, peppering my day with the recitation of the four Daily Offices of the Community is vital. If I am not available to God, I am not frankly much use to others.

As well as being available, our vulnerability is also clear. When there are no church walls to hide behind, we are apparent as human like everyone else. There are moments of darkness and hopelessness when we have no answers and faith can sometimes feel more a hindrance than a help. As I run off the lists each morning of those who have come into the prison the day before, my heart can sink. I spot not only familiar names, but also those with whom I have worked closely and who had gone out determined not to reoffend. I share their sense of failure when we meet. In 20 years as a priest, Henri Nouwen's notion of 'wounded healers'6 has nowhere made more sense than during the years I have spent behind prison walls.



Our redtop media, and even the BBC with feature programmes such as Crimewatch, inculcate in us a highlypenal perception of what prison is. The often forbidding architecture of our establishments reflects this too. Our remaining Victorian city centre jails are a visible reminder that it is necessary for some to be locked up and the key metaphorically thrown away. This is surely right. Custody must be an available penalty for habitual and serious criminality. We, the public, should be protected as needed.

But more than this, prisons are also places of redemption. The name 'cell' derives from the monastic movement. 'Go to your cell', an abbot is alleged to have instructed his monks, 'and your cell will teach you everything.'8 A prison cell is not different. Through long hours of boredom and darkness, this confined space is intended to be one of reflection and self-correction. Time out of the cell is also crucial. Everyone has a sentence plan. There must be purposeful occupation that includes help in addressing the causes of offending behaviour. There must also be a planned route back to resettlement in the community as a law abiding citizen that addresses issues such as accommodation, health, finance, potential substance abuse and relationship with family.



Chaplaincy has a part to play in all that, and for some the discovery of a faith helps with inner resilience even when outward conditions on release are not the best. There is no work I love more than the baptism classes we run on request and the occasions themselves, often through full immersion, when our young people mark their decision to leave behind an old life and start afresh with God's help. Restorative Justice is redemptive also. Where they are willing, you can meet your victim in prison. Imagine the impact of sitting in a room with someone you robbed or burgled and finding they aren't necessarily any less angry than you thought, but that they also want to help you! These are always emotionally charged and sometimes life-changing encounters.

'My life was just mad', another young person said to me recently. 'I needed to come here.' He isn't alone.

Barbara Brown Taylor explores the spirituality of darkness, both inward and physical.9 She concludes, drawing on personal exploration and Christian tradition, that darkness is by no means always negative. In the Hebrew Bible, God creates and names both light and dark.10 There is no doubt that prisons are dark places in many senses. However, and surprisingly, my experience has been that in them both God and hope may also be found in abundance.


Nick Jones is an Anglican priest who works with young offenders in custody and is an honorary chaplain of Halifax Minster. He is an associate member of the Restorative Justice Council, Companion of the Northumbria Community and part-time research student in Criminology at the University of Huddersfield.


1 16 to 22 November

2 Psalm 137:4

3 In the Prisons Act, 1952

4 of-life

5 For example in Everything Belongs, by Richard Rohr (The Crossroads Publishing Company, New York 1990)

6 The Wounded Healer: Ministry in contemporary society by Henri Nouwen (DLT, London 1994)

7 This duality is borrowed from the annual Redemption and Justice Awards sponsored by 'No Offence! CIC', an independent justice information exchange:

8 This is normally attributed to Desert father Abba Moses

9 Learning to Walk in the Dark, by Barbara Brown Taylor (Canterbury Press, Norwich, 2014)

10 Genesis 1:1-5