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Demonstrating the heart of the Mothers’ Union in UK Prisons

To mark Prisons Week members have been sharing how Mothers' Union is working in different ways through the Prison Service in the UK. 

12 Oct 2018

As we approach 2019 with a new Worldwide President and Board of Trustees and with our MULOA process in full swing across all countries we work in, our members and staff alike are being prompted to reflect on what is really at the heart of our movement and calling. Is it the age old stereotype attached to Mothers' Union of a chat over some tea and cake in the parish church hall? Or does what is really at the root of our organisation go deeper than that, with our members tackling some of the most challenging issues that our society faces today? After speaking with 3 Diocesan Presidents this week about their work in local prisons, the answer is abundantly clear.

Like many of the activities that our organisation is involved in, our prison work started small - with members volunteering in visitor centre cafés or providing books for prisoners - and has grown into something much bigger. Nowadays, in addition to these activities, members are involved with running various training schemes, organising family days, counselling prisoners and providing a safe and stimulating environment for children during their visits, amongst many other things.

One of the training courses we support is called Hidden Sentence which is aimed at helping professionals who work with children to understand the effects of having a parent who is a prisoner. It involves participants going through the visiting process, being searched as the child would be, going into the visits hall, learning about the important role of the play area, visiting a prison block to get a feel for prison life and then taking part in a discussion about the effects this may have on children and what to look out for. Feedback from delegates has been very positive. 

Additionally, in one young-offenders prison, members have facilitated a peer mentoring programme called Toe by Toe where they train prisoners who can read to teach their peers who cannot read. In the same prison, one member runs Being Dad, a confidential support group which aims to encourage Dads to think about their role and how they can interact with family members even though they are inside.

Programmes like these are so important, not only for giving the prisoners a positive focus during their time inside but also to prepare them for challenges they may face after release and therefore, helping to reduce the chances of re-offending. Evidence has found that prisoners who have strong family relationships are far less likely to re-offend once released and so much of Mothers' Union’s work is focused on reinforcing broken family relationships or strengthening those already in place. 

Members also work hard to make the family visiting experience as stress-free and comfortable as possible. As well as members running visitor hall crèches and tea bars, many have had a very active role in making ‘Family Days’ and ‘Dad Days’ exciting and memorable events. This has involved hiring magicians, providing a willow tree for a sensory garden and putting on craft activities amongst other things, all of which is funded purely by members. In addition, upon request of the prison, one group of members purchased a covered seating area, designed to create a safe space for 1-1 chats between prisoners and their loved ones but where they can still be seen by prison officers.

Many of these contributions are very costly but members in some dioceses fund these activities in a way that still contributes to supporting families going through the social justice system. One group of members run a small but very successful café in the entrance of a law court which enables them to provide hospitality and a place to chat for families of defendants and also legal professionals and the jury. This was recently recognised by the High Sheriff of the county with a Community Service award.

Other groups use funds they raise from running visitor centre cafes. These tea bars not only supply valuable funding for Mothers' Union to put back into prison work but also enable the members to demonstrate God’s love to those in need in an otherwise secular environment. This is done by being a smiley face and listening ear to those who may be going through extreme emotional strain, have travelled for many hours or would just value someone to talk to who is impartial and non-judgemental. In one diocese, making connections in this way has enabled members to provide families in need with AFIA holidays and other MU services. 

As you would imagine, prison work is not without its challenges. A lack of prison staff and ever changing security regulations can make it difficult for our members to to carry out all their desired work. However, with flexibility of volunteers and support from the prison chaplaincy, as well as dedication to being rooted in prayer, members continue to touch the lives of prisoners and their families in wonderful ways every day. At a quick glance, in comparison to the larger activities that members arrange in prisons, running visitor tea bars may seem small. However, the real and often hidden value of ‘tea, cake and a chat’ goes so much deeper and it is reflective of Jesus’ work here on earth; being a friend to the needy, providing a non-judgemental ear, demonstrating God’s love. It’s through these cafes that members have been able to make real and much needed connections with the very people at the heart of our organisation: families in need of Christian care.  

Click here to prayfully support our work in prisons through a prayer diary