Meeting for Worship in Usk prison
Meeting for Worship is currently held weekly at Usk prison in a pleasant ante-room adjoining the Chaplain’s office. There are upholstered chairs, coffee tables and access to tea-making facilities. We hold a half-hour Meeting for Worship on Wednesday afternoons. This is followed by about forty-five minutes of chat over tea and biscuits. The whole thing is very gently ‘facilitated’ by the QPM and there are usually three other Quakers present (from a ‘pool’ of about half a dozen) from relatively near Local Meetings. There is a core of four men who are almost always present plus four/five others who come most weeks. From time to time we get a new attender who is trying us out (usually only one at a time). He may stay – or may not. The cells are usually open at this time so the men can come to us freely – we don’t have to collect them from the wings. Most men are serving long sentences (years) so we have a fairly settled group, in contrast, as I understand it, to Meetings in many prisons. There are currently no Quaker prisoners and, as far as I know, none is seeking membership. Sometimes the men reveal what their previous belief background is but on the whole they don’t.
After our Meeting yesterday the QPC asked the seven men present what led them to come to it (a softer way of asking than a blunt why?!). I had expected an embarrassed silence at first, but not a bit of it! Within seconds, almost all said, “for the peace”. Donald said, this is the only place where I can find a bit of silence, and several others nodded in agreement. Ryan added, I find that I can sort out things in my head. Craig, enlarging on this, said, I had a disturbing bit of news this afternoon and coming here has helped me deal with it. This particular Meeting had been silent and had centred down very quickly, so I asked the group if they had found the silence difficult or too long. Nobody had. (They usually settle quickly into the silence. Most men remain very still and seated squarely in their chairs with hands and arms in relaxed, ‘open’ position. One fidgets a bit and another usually browses Quaker Faith and Practice. When the QPC explained yesterday that Meetings normally lasted about an hour and asked how that would be for them, two men said immediately that they would feel happy with this. Oh yes, said Harry, smiling, I could manage that – no problem. Nobody disagreed but I wonder whether all would manage a full hour without discomfort. (I doubt whether we would put this into practice, as it would encroach on tea/chat time, which is also precious. We have only an hour and a half in total before they have to go back to their cells).
Their affirmation of the welcome short weekly silence in their lives leads me to wonder whether any ministry from the QPC or the three other volunteers is necessary. The QPC says something more often than not; occasionally I or one of the other volunteers does. The men rarely speak but when they do it somehow lends extra weight and depth to the meeting.
We rarely talk about God or religious experience in the chat time – we tend to split into twos and threes and chat about whatever comes up which can sometimes be quite weighty. I therefore have little sense of what ‘Quakerly flavour’ they get from the Meeting but peace issues come up from time to time as does Quaker history and attitudes current ‘issues’ in the news. Mike (a newish attender) asked, Who do you think are the most famous Quakers? Some there knew of the chocolate connection but not more, so we added in, to their amusement and interest, the banks, biscuit and shoe firms, and so on we didn’t get round to 20c Friends! There wasn’t time to say more! One attender came for a few weeks because he had suffered a family bereavement. He said he found both the silence and the ministry helpful.
I suppose perhaps the most one can say about Meeting for Worship at Usk is that it answers a need – a need above all to find a space in which the men can be silent and untroubled amid what is, for the remainder of their waking lives, a very noisy and frequently disagreeable existence.
NB: All names have been changed to protect prisoner confidentiality.