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Answering The Need As We Saw It
We explore some of MU's work in prison ministry
Every prison is different. For MU members working with prisons and prison charities, it’s about identifying what each individual prison needs.
(Article originally published in Connected Spring 2022)
Supporting prisoners and their families
In one young offenders’ institute, prior to the pandemic, MU members were asked to help with the crèche. This led to contact with the prison library, who were keen to provide opportunities for craftwork. Out of this, MU started helping the young men to make simple books for their children, which were posted or shared at ‘family day’ visits. Books could be about colours, counting (one lemon, two apples) or, if the child was slightly older, a simple story. The fathers chose the type of book suitable for their child. A popular choice was ‘I can spell my name’, with a letter per page from the child’s name, illustrated with something beginning with that letter (such as peas for the letter P!) Each young offender needed different levels of support; some were not even literate themselves.
A picture of the child’s favourite toy went on the cover. Some fathers didn’t know what this toy was, so they were encouraged to find out! On the inside back cover, they wrote personal messages to their children. Reflecting on the experience, the young men often said, ‘I’ve never finished anything before.’ Through their work with the crèche on various visiting days, MU volunteers were able to encourage the young men to play with their children and develop better relationships with them.
45% of prisoners in the UK lose contact with their families while they are prison. Research has shown that prisoners who maintain relationships with their families are less likely to re- offend. Support for prisoners’ families by MU members starts at birth – and before. In some prisons, MU members prepare baby bags for the men to give their partners, filled with essentials for their new-born child.
In one women’s prison, MU members have supported the Mother and Baby unit for many years. They have a fund to provide baby boxes, containing items such as feeding bottles, bibs and wipes for the first few weeks. ‘One of the young mums introduced me to her baby and showed me her baby box, ‘says a volunteer at the unit. ‘She said she was going to keep it because, although she had used all the items in it, the box was now going to become a “memory box” for things she has made [relating to] her baby.’
Pregnant prisoners often went to hospital to have their baby without a decent bag for their belongings. A ‘birthing bag’ project was set up, providing a bag containing items for their stay in hospital.
Looking to the future – together
As part of understanding what prisons find helpful, MU members work closely with chaplaincies and other prison charities. ‘It’s so important to do what is going to be useful to the prison’, says Rita Evans, Diocese of Birmingham. ‘It’s been about answering the need as we saw it.’
In the Diocese of Chester, they have initiated a prison ministry fund rather than donating items: ‘We have found that this is a better way of providing what the prisons needs,’ says Joan Colwell. Over the past two years, access has been highly restricted owing to the need to protect others from Covid-19 (we explored this in the previous issue of Connected). ‘We pray that the lines of communication that have been somewhat limited in the past months can be resurrected,’ says Joan. ‘We pray that all our prison chaplaincy teams are supported as they have been though a very difficult time with many of them ill with the virus and still suffering the after effects.’
MU prison volunteers have diminished over the pandemic. They have lost family members, or need to provide more care to someone else. Volunteers also need to be at ease in the environment. ‘It’s not something everyone is comfortable with,’ adds Rita. ‘You’ve got so many gates unlocking and locking.’ It has been an encouragement to members to be able gradually to regain some access, welcoming families to prisons in prison visitors’ centres and meeting with chaplains and other prison staff to plan how Mothers’ Union can support them moving forward.
Pray for those branches and members involved in prison ministry that, as we still navigate the impact of the pandemic, ways can be found to make a real difference to prisoners and their families.