Grendon is a unique prison operating as a therapeutic community in which men, serving long terms of imprisonment for serious crimes, choose to spend a few years of their sentence engaging in group therapy and being challenged to look deeply at problematic behaviour patterns and entrenched beliefs that have contributed to their offences. They risk being exposed and vulnerable as they share powerful emotions and are robustly challenged by both therapists and other inmates – it is not a soft option.
I became interested in Grendon even before I was a Quaker, because the head of my daughter’s primary school encouraged parents to learn about the prison on our doorstep, where he led poetry workshops. I was very impressed and intrigued by the place when I visited it during one of the prison’s regular open days.
When I began attending Quaker meetings in 2001, I learnt about the group which meets weekly in Grendon and so started to attend here too with the ‘Freddie Lakers’ as we’ve been dubbed in rhyming slang. I was appointed Quaker chaplain in November 2006.
Each Wednesday afternoon I visit the prison wings and in the evening I bring in a group of Quaker volunteers to worship with inmates in the prison chapel. Many times I have heard both volunteers and inmates say how much they look forward to the meeting and how moving and uplifting it is, even though we sometimes hear some desperately sad stories in ministry and in private conversations.
What I most often hear the men say they value is the quiet, a chance to get away from the noise on the wings and the ‘inner noise’ after a particularly heavy therapy session. Sometimes our half-hour period of worship is entirely silent and sometimes inmates or volunteers may speak. Afterwards there is a chance for conversation and I make sure there is a supply of Quaker books and magazines for those who want to enquire further or who need something to read if they find the prospect of silence too unfamiliar or unsettling.
I remember one inmate who would not join our circle at first, but chose to sit in a corner watching us, saying he did not like to close his eyes or have his back to anyone. He gradually joined the circle and surprised us a few times by venturing to offer spoken ministry.
A chaplain’s duty is to staff as well and I have appreciated the occasions when an officer has joined us for worship. Recently a Sikh officer came and asked us about Quakers and our place within the Christian tradition.
I have had to think hard about my own beliefs and values which have been subjected to tests as diverse as the question ‘Do you believe in Noah’s Ark, miss?’ to a philosophical conversation with a Hindu prisoner about causation and responsibility which left my mind reeling.
It is hard sometimes to feel part of the chaplaincy team, whom I may not see for several weeks at a time. Without Quaker volunteers and friends the job would be lonely, and I am very grateful for their support and the social occasions we arrange a couple of times a year.
Prison is a difficult environment at the best of times and particular challenges at the moment are staff shortages, which mean that arrangements for the meeting for worship have to be changed at short notice, and more restrictive security measures, which are making it harder to bring new volunteers into the prison.
It would be very easy to descend into a spiral of negativity over such things but I believe it is crucial not to succumb to it personally, nor to feed into it when talking with prisoners. I take an interest in reform to the criminal justice system through my membership of various organisations, but I see my chaplaincy work as different from this. For me, it’s essential to be rooted in my own daily practices of stillness, prayer and meditation, and open to the leadings of the Spirit manifested through the support of Quaker friends and in many other ways in order to be able to follow George Fox in his wonderful advice to ‘walk cheerfully’.
For more information about Quaker prison Chaplains, click here.