You no longer belong to evil but to good
Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, recounts the story of the French convict, Jean Valjean who, after serving nineteen years in prison for stealing, is released and taken in by a bishop. In the middle of the night, Valjean steals from the bishop and runs away. After being caught by the police and returned to the bishop’s house, facing another prison sentence, Valjean is amazed at the bishop’s grace towards him as he intervenes to prevent Valjean’s arrest and hands over his best silver to help Valjean rebuild his life. The charges are dropped and Valjean has the opportunity to walk away a changed man with a new life ahead of him.
From Valjean to Joe
Valjean’s story reflects the stories of many of the prisoners that organisations like Daylight work with. Joe was a prisoner serving a life sentence for murder after becoming involved in a violent knife attack. In an attempt to escape having to do any work, Joe attended a Bible study through which he learned about the person and work of Jesus Christ. Joe attended the study regularly, became a Christian and saw his life transformed. Speaking about the change in his life, Joe said, ‘Whilst I’m very sorry for what I’ve done, I’m grateful that God sent me here. It’s hard in here but life is beautiful because I have a relationship with God.’
Like Valjean, Joe was amazed at the grace shown to him and saw his life completely changed by the gospel of Jesus Christ. His story is a reminder of why prison ministry is important. At a time when there are nearly 96,000 prisoners across the UK, with an average age of only twenty-seven, the door for prison ministry is open to an often-forgotten mission field. 52% of offenders claim to have a Christian background and are willing to discuss issues of the Christian faith. In response to the Philippian jailer’s question, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ Paul answered, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved’. This is the mission of organisations like Daylight, which want to see prisoners’ lives transformed from darkness to light.
But why prison ministry?
The debate around prison ministry often centres upon the question ‘Why prison?’ In the Mosaic law of the Old Testament, imprisonment is entirely absent, apart from the cities of refuge for manslaughter which arguably served as a form of detention. There are however, some examples of prisons in Egypt (Gen. 39), Philistia (Judg. 16:21), Assyria (2 Kings 17:4) and Babylon (2 Kings 25:27). Rulers at the time of the New Testament also detained prisoners. Crimes that are punished today by imprisonment were punished in biblical times by corporal punishment, capital punishment, restitution and enslavement.
While on earth, Jesus spent much of his time with society’s outcasts – the tax collectors, prostitutes, and other sinners, showing that the gospel transcends social barriers and that His mission was ‘to seek and to save what was lost’ (Luke 19:10). If Jesus were on earth today, He would therefore be found visiting the thousands in prison.
As Jesus’ representatives on earth, we should likewise be among prisoners as well. We should be following Christ’s example by calling all, regardless of circumstances, to faith and repentance. Christ’s love and power is able to transform lives and change men and women, including prisoners like Joe, from darkness to light.
The wider effects
The wider implications of having the largest prison population in Western Europe are far reaching. Each year, 160,000 children experience having one of their parents in prison, which is more than experience parental divorce. For 17,000 of these children, it is their mother who is serving a sentence. 50% of the women in prison have experienced domestic violence and 48% of offenders are at or below the reading level expected of an eleven-year-old. The prison population is made up of people from very different walks of life – from the Eton-educated man, to the church-goer who found himself trapped in debt, to the woman who had never heard of Jesus or why He came to earth. The opportunity to reach all kinds of people with the gospel is great.
More than just words
Telling prisoners of their need of Christ is of primary importance, but for many, living in response to the gospel after release is almost impossible without support. 49% of ex-offenders find themselves back inside within twelve months of release. For many whose families have rejected them because of their crime, it is the local drug dealer or gang member who meets them at the prison gate and makes the lure of a former lifestyle too strong to resist. A prisoner in HMP Bullingdon told us that a few days before his release he had nowhere to go and no prospect of employment once he was on the outside. For people like him, the thought of having to rebuild a new life in society without any idea of where to start is often too overwhelming and is the reason why many offenders find themselves trapped on a merry-go-round of crime. 74% of those without employment or housing will end up back inside within twelve months of release for this very reason. The average offender has sixteen previous convictions and 100,000 crimes each year are committed by convicted criminals. The conveyor belt to crime is a serious problem facing our criminal justice system and one which the government admits needs addressing. The role of third sector organisations, like Daylight, is of increasing importance in this, particularly as state provision is increasingly limited. The National Offender Management Service states that for an ex-offender to be able to rebuild his life and fully integrate into society, he requires a home, a job, family and health support. In response, the government has pledged to bring about a rehabilitation revolution in the post-release support of ex-offenders by actively working with the third sector to ensure ex-offenders stay out of prison.
A growing need
Organisations, like Daylight, are therefore expanding their work to help meet the spiritual and practical needs of ex-offenders. By meeting ex-offenders at the prison gate, helping them access local services, developing genuine friendships, and helping them integrate into a community and local church if they wish, the likelihood of re-offending is reduced, and most importantly the gospel is seen and heard.
The prison population is an often forgotten mission field but one which needs to hear the gospel just as much as any other. The door for gospel-based ministry in UK prisons is wide open and the church needs to respond to this opportunity. Daylight, and other organisations, are well-placed to help provide the framework through which the church can get involved in sharing the gospel with offenders and providing ongoing practical support for them after release.
How can you support?
Any gospel ministry requires God’s people to pray, acknowledging that it is God alone who saves. Please pray for organisations, like Daylight, as they continue to reach prisoners with the gospel. For those who want to be more practically involved, visiting prisoners or writing to them are ways through which people can support this work. For some prisoners, receiving a letter is the only contact they have with the outside world. Finally, all charitable organisations rely upon the generosity of their supporters to be able to sustain their prison ministry. In whatever way you can, please join with us in supporting the work behind bars to see more lives, like Joe’s, transformed by God’s amazing grace.
John Scott is Chief Executive of Daylight. For more information visit: www.daylightcpt.org