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I was in prison and you visited me
Mothers’ Union members around the world shine a light in the darkness of prison
Cold corridors warmed with contemplation. Convicts singing in choirs. Their families no longer forgotten. Prison is becoming a place of prayer. These are just some of the results of Mothers’ Union involvement in prisons, in the UK and overseas. Mothers’ Union branches may not boast of it, but their work over the years has made such an impact, it’s been featured in mainstream media. ‘Most people who come in here treat us as criminals,’ a female prisoner called Diana told The Independent way back in 1993. ‘Mothers’ Union members treat us as human beings.’ Reporting on rising numbers of women prisoners, in 1999 the BBC explained how Mothers’ Union was engaging with them through visiting, supplying childcare, welcoming visitors, offering parenting courses and providing safe play areas. Prison ministry has also been analysed in the Christian world. A collection of stories from Church House Publishing called The Way Of Renewal focused partly on Mothers’ Union prison work in the Diocese of Wakefield.
JUST BEING THERE
Mothers’ Union involvement started at New Hall prison in West Yorkshire after the chaplain asked for prayer support. When plans were drawn up for a mother and baby unit, Mothers’ Union volunteers started raising funds for equipment.
That led to a Mothers’ Union branch at the prison. ‘Worship and singing have great meaning for them,’ volunteer Celia McCulloch said of the prisoners. ‘They sing their favourite songs and hymns in their cells. One “lifer’s” cell has become a peaceful place of prayer.’ Often, the prison corridors outside the chapel fall silent – ‘a very rare and precious event’ as Celia called it. ‘Prayer takes on a new dimension in this stripped-down place where life is often raw and basic.’
Mothers’ Union is active in more than 100 prisons across the UK and Ireland. And it’s not just to reach out to female inmates. Maggie Riches has been visiting Usk prison in South Wales for nearly 25 years. Usk is a ‘category C’ establishment for ‘vulnerable prisoners’. ‘We take them at absolute face value,’ says Maggie, who coordinates Mothers’ Union prison work for the Monmouth diocese. ‘We don’t need to know the nature of their crimes. Our approach is, “there is Christ in everyone”.’ Mothers’ Union members attend the Sunday morning service at the prison. Some of the women might give a short sermon. They’re all on the readers’ list for the services. But basically, they’re attendees. ‘We’re non-judgemental,’ she said. ‘We’re simply visitors. We’re part of the congregation.’ They take their role seriously. Maggie and her friends listen to the men’s accounts of their prison activities – whether that’s an English exam they might have passed, or some artwork they’ve completed. Maggie keeps up with sport on television, so she can talk about that subject, too. ‘We love doing it,’ Maggie said of the work. ‘We know they’re very pleased to see us. They treat us as if we’re “granny” or “auntie” or another elderly relative.’
THE HIDDEN SIDE
Christine Sharp, Action & Outreach Coordinator for the Diocese of Manchester, has worked in Drake Hall, Werrington, Stafford and Manchester prisons. She speaks enthusiastically about parenting courses and explains the impact on families is the ‘hidden side’ of prison life. ‘People tend to disregard the families and the children of the prisoners,’ said Christine. She was about to run a course at HMP Manchester when a prisoner climbed on the roof and staged a protest. Prison work isn’t without its drama. But it doesn’t stop her. ‘I just think it’s really important that these people aren’t forgotten,’ Christine added. ‘We need to do as much as we can.’ Across the globe it’s a similar picture. Mothers’ Union members are supporting people in prison and families impacted by imprisonment. In countries right across the world, members take in food and clothing and spend time with prisoners in prayer. When prisoners have their children in prison with them, Mothers’ Union do all they can to improve conditions for them. Members provide blankets and offer fruit and vegetables to supplement the poor prison diet. Members’ support is given to prisoners and their families in a variety of ways, depending on need. All volunteers are encouraged to access appropriate training.
A FRESH START
Junelle is an inmate of a prison in North Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo. ‘I’m a widow,’ she told Mothers’ Union. ‘To feed my baby I had to resort to stealing food.’ She was caught and sent to prison with her child. Prison, for a woman, is particularly difficult in that country. The women have their own cell, but it is not divided off from the men’s prison. Junelle explained, ‘The male prisoners include both civil and military prisoners who have been involved in the war, so it’s a very intimidating place to be. There’s no healthcare. Hygiene is poor; we clean our cells when we can. Sanitation facilities are limited. ‘The prison provides us nothing; we have to fend for ourselves. The women in my cell cook together and share what we have. We are dependent on our families to bring us food, but sometimes the guards take it for themselves. Our children are also with us; they share what small space we have to sleep in and live in our cell. We try to be mothers in here, but it is hard. Thanks to local Mothers’ Union members who come and support us.’
Many prisoners are illiterate, but have been learning to read and write with the help of Mothers’ Union facilitators in prison. Some prisoners are learning to make chapattis and have started selling them to their fellow prisoners. This has
a huge impact: one prisoner said, ‘Mothers’ Union members bring food each week and female and male prisoners work together and share their knowledge to cook a simple, nutritious meal for us to share. This meal helps us to concentrate when we have our literacy circle. The prison is small and overcrowded and we are many. The prison courtyard is always full of learners who are desperate for a fresh start in life – there is barely space to stand.’ Mothers’ Union members continue to work with prisoners after release, helping them get back on their feet by giving them further training and skills.
The Outgate project in Mauritius supports female prisoners in prison as well as their families who remain outside, recognising that, when a mother is imprisoned, they have lost an earner and struggle financially. Each family receives a small sum of money each month and is visited by Mothers’ Union too. This helps keep contact between the children and mother. Mothers’ Union provides prison mentors for female prisoners such as Mary Jane, who is serving three years in prison. For Mary Jane, having a mentor like Shirley is incredible: ‘She is my best friend, we’re so close. I missed the welcoming hands of a mum. Shirley really helps me and she understands the sadness that I experience from my past.’ Because of Shirley, Mary Jane’s been able to meet with her children, who she has missed so much. The Mauritius government funds this work, and Mothers’ Union works in collaboration with Prison Fellowship Mauritius.
WHAT KEEPS EVERYONE GOING?
Mothers’ Union prison work is a two-way street. Volunteers experience something, too. ‘It really did me a lot of good,’ said Manchester’s Christine Sharp, ‘and opened my eyes to a lot of things.’ Back in Wales, Maggie Riches is quick off the mark with her response. ‘The singing,’ she said, ‘is like being in the middle of a male voice choir.’