Revd Liz Perry, one of the chaplains at HMP Ashfield, reports on a special confirmation service in their chapelfor serving prisoners, led by Bishop Lee.
Back in the summera confirmation service was held at which13 candidates were presented and the service followed the pattern used at all confirmations held in the Diocese. The difference was that the service was held in the chapel at HMP Ashfield and those confirmed were all serving prisoners.
The candidates camefrom a variety of backgrounds and cultures and ranged in age from 20s to 70s. All weremembers of the Anglican community here in Ashfield and meet each week for the Eucharist. They are able to join in Bible study run by chaplaincy, and have formed their own prayer groups and Bible studies informally on the wings. Some were baptised in infancy, others at previous prisons (prisoners move around a lot) and sixhave been baptised here over the last year.
HMP Ashfield was formerly a Young Offenders Institution, housing young men from 15-18. In 2013 it was rerolled to become an adult prison, housing only sex offenders and running the Sex Offender Treatment Programme. I am the Anglican Chaplain in the multi-faith team, with Revd Anja Thomsonin the specific role as Family Support Chaplain. We have worked closely in preparing these men for confirmation and it was a joy to be present with them.
When speaking about this population we are often asked, What is it like, working there? Sadly, in the same way that we can all be affected by having within our family those who have suffered abuse, likewise many families have a sex offender (which covers a whole range of offences) as a relative. Understandably, many subsequently lose all contact when they arecharged or convicted. So we often answer that the men here represent all aspects of our society, and that our Christian message of repentance and new life fits well with the treatment programmes, which expect accountability for the past and equips participants with personal tools to prevent reoffending. We believe our faith has to be lived to be authentic.
Our confirmation service included testimonies.
Here are two excerpts:
I was baptised as a baby and had a loosely Christian upbringing but during my adult life I drifted far away from God. Last November I found myself in prison and crying in deep despair, simply crying out for help. To my surprise this gave me an overwhelming sense of comfort and hope and I felt an irresistible desire to come back to God.
"I knew God would forgive me and I repented. I unconditionally forgave people I was holding things against and it felt fantastic; and I finally forgave myself which was the hardest step, but it was a breakthrough that left me sobbing on my bed.
"Since then God has helped me make sense of my life and recognise the opportunities he had given me to turn away from the destructive path I was on. I am at peace with being in prison now; I realise it was the only way left that I could get the big 'reset' that I needed. So it is now less a punishment and more of a chance to focus on what is important. Sadly prison was a necessary step for me to learn to live more in God's world and that is how I live my life now.
"My future on release will be challenging but I have absolute faith that having given me the strength to get this far and taught me so much, that God has a plan for me and will support me. He has filled me with hope and I am excited to do his work.
Prisoner I who is older and who now co-ordinates the peer-to-peer listening scheme here (which is vital in supporting vulnerable prisoners) said:
"...I went through my 20s, 30s and most of my 40s thinking only of myself and leaving wreckage everywhere.
The lowest point in my life was when I offended and subsequently came to prison. After four moves I attended Chapel and have been every week since.
"Something strange happened to me; I had 'pins and needles' from my head to my toes. Within a year I was baptised there and that truly was the greatest day in my life and I felt that Jesus washed my sins away.
"I have gone from strength to strength since then which leads me to this day of confirmation. I get up each day hoping that I can help someone; I feel blessed if I can help more than one."
Last year a group of prisoners presented a production of Joseph so it was apt that Bishop Lee spoke about this story, as it is one the prisoners know and love. Bishop Lees presence was really appreciated and he spent time afterwards with prisoners and families who had been able to attend. He was a blessing to us all that day.
12 of the 13 candidates were confirmed that day, as our oldest candidate was taken ill during the service and had to be treated by healthcare staff and was admitted to hospital. The care and love with which he was treated by prisoners is a testament to the real sense of fellowship in Christ which is present here and the compassionate manner in which he was cared for by staff is a testament to their professionalism.
As was emphasised at the service, for the men this was not the end - a goal in itself - but the end of the beginning and a start of a new chapter of God's grace and truth for them; a future that will be safer for them and for us.
RevdLiz Perry,Anglican Chaplain, HMP Ashfield