Rev Sharon Grenham-Thompson worked in three prisons as a full-time chaplain between 2004 and 2016. She has now returned to parish ministry and continues as a broadcaster on national radio. Her book Jail Bird: The Inside Story of the Glam Vicar, was published in July. Here she writes about the role of prison chaplaincy in a blog to mark Prisons Sunday and the start of Prisons Week.
‘What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?’ It wasn’t a chat up line (I don’t think!) but a genuine comment from a man in his fifties, on remand in a High Security jail.
The short answer was, ‘I’m a prison chaplain, paid to be here.’
Although I subsequently left the Prison Service (in February 2016, 12 years after first collecting my keys) the slightly more considered answer might be something like this:
Prisons and their inhabitants, and the conditions under which they’re held, have very much been in the news recently. Drugs, violence, lack of opportunity, staff shortages – it’s a grim picture of hopelessness that seems suddenly to have burst upon us. Those of us who’ve worked in prison aren’t that surprised of course: prisons aren’t a vote winner, and under-investment has been a problem for years. Add to that an increasing appetite for custodial sentences, and we find ourselves with an over-crowded, under-resourced system, exhausted staff, and men and women on a destructive cycle of re-offending.
Now, I’m no apologist for wrongdoing. Justice must be administered and sentences served, as well as respect given to the experiences of victims of crime. But on the other hand, apart from a very few prisoners sentenced to whole life tariffs, most of those incarcerated in the nation’s jails will be released at some point, and will need to reintegrate. I would argue that it’s in the interest of society to make that re-integration as successful as possible.
And as a Christian I would take that duty further: Jesus modelled for us an attitude that accepted the outcasts of society, the sinners and the wayward. Jesus didn’t pretend the sins had never existed, but he offered love and a way out. In other words, he offered a second chance (and a third and a fourth) to those whom the rest of society saw as undeserving.
In a society very quick to proclaim “Lock ‘em up and throw away the key”, I believe people of faith can declare an alternative – “Lord have mercy.”
In exactly that spirit, prison chaplains, and all those associated with chaplaincies, work hard with prisoners, families and staff, every day, up and down the country. Dealing with some of the most desperate people; quietly demonstrating a different way of living; bringing an opportunity for even the most damaged to rediscover the value of life and humanity – their own and that of others.
That’s what a ‘nice girl like me’ was up to all those years!
Prisons Week is great, because it encourages individuals and churches to engage with the experience of those living or working in prison – through prayer, awareness, and action. Never underestimate the power of these small acts of love and mercy – prisoners and staff alike, including chaplains, derive enormous support from feeling that they’re not ‘invisible’ after all.
I truly believe that for a religion to have any meaning, it must face the darkest corners of society, the hardest parts of life. For me, faith is not about judging people, nor even about persuading others to believe what you do. Yes, it’s about accountability, and responsibility, and I would always encourage that long, hard look in the mirror. But to my mind, being a Christian is about helping others walk along their own pathway, as you yourself stumble with them. It’s about bringing light to darkness, hope to despair, and holding on to the promise that with God all things are possible.
I think this is something for us to remember in our own lives too. Most of us aren’t going to find ourselves on the wrong side of the law, but plenty of us will have things in life we regret, hidden shame, dreadful mistakes we’ve made, moments we’d go back and change if only we could.
How wonderful then, to be reminded that none of it is beyond the reach of God, whatever others, or even an inner voice, might tell us. Forgiven so much, every day we’re offered the chance to love without measure in return. Lord, have mercy.
Rev Sharon Grenham-Thompson