The woman at the Ministry of Justice sounded a bit surprised when I told her I was going off to a monastery for the weekend!
It’s not the kind of information I would necessarily divulge to a senior manager at the MOJ but we’d had such a nice conversation and she’d been so helpful about a seemingly intractable problem that I thought, ‘Why not!’
My call with Sharon came at the end of what had been quite a week with one thing and another. A lot of energy had gone into trying to find a solution to the above-mentioned problem, which is that from November 2nd payments to people in prison can only be made using a debit card. The Irish Chaplaincy makes many such payments, for things like phone credit so people can call their families back in Ireland. During the lockdown this has been more crucial than ever, with no visits allowed, up to 23 ½ hour a day ‘bang-up’, and no means to earn a little money due to most prison work being suspended. Research has shown that helping people in prison to maintain contact with family is the single most significant factor in eventual successful rehabilitation. And people are so grateful for this bit of kindness. Recent letters to us have included the following:
“I cannot tell you what a difference it makes to be free to make the calls I need” (HMP Brixton)
“Your organisation has allowed me to maintain stronger family ties with my father, stepmother, siblings, cousins and aunties/ uncles in R.O.I so thank you for that”. (HMP Elmley)
“Thank you for that £10 that will help me talk to my Mrs for longer so a great thanks for that. It feels good to think that I have a connection to the outside still.” (HMP Highpoint)
We also enable people to buy basic necessities like toiletries. I’d been touched a few days previously to hear that an Irish woman in HMP Bronzefield has been nominated as a finalist for the Koestler awards for the crucifix she made out of soap that she purchased with a grant from the Irish Chaplaincy. She said that if she went on to win any money she would donate it to The Irish Commission for a charity to help poor children. This is a woman who quite possibly has nothing, like many in prison. Three times in the last few weeks our team has supported men who came out of prison with only the clothes on their backs. And one of those three had been wandering around trying to find his AP, Approved Premises. Being unable to read he could not understand the written directions given him; and if you do not get to your AP by a certain time you are immediately recalled to prison. Having said that the maintenance of family contact is important, providing people with clothing, footwear, a phone, and help to find their AP; not to mention assistance and encouragement to climb the mountain in front of them: these are also crucial. But, as for any of us, a little kindness can go a long way.
In the last 12 months we have spent nearly £20,000 in small payments to Irish people in prison in England and Wales. And we are incredibly grateful to our funders for this. Part of our grant from the Irish Government’s Emigrant Support Programme goes towards this essential (and at time literally life-saving) support, and we’ve been able to give a bit more than usual at this time of lockdown thanks to Covid-19 response grants from the Lottery and from the Irish Youth Foundation. We have been making these payments by direct bank transfer but this cannot be done from November 2nd. Our bank does not issue a debit card and it is virtually impossible at the moment to open a new business current account. Several of us have worked tirelessly for weeks to try to find a solution before the November 2nd deadline but none of the options we tried were working out.
The wonderful team at the Irish Chaplaincy has been understanding. We were cheered to see the publication on October 28th of a report by HM Inspectorate of Prisons, entitled ‘Minority ethnic prisoners’ experiences of rehabilitation and release planning.’ The work of the Irish Chaplaincy is mentioned no fewer than eight times in this report, including in the section ‘Recommendations and notable positive practice’. For an organisation to get a single favourable mention in such a report would be good going. We were blown away to get so many such mentions. On the same day that the report came out some of us were attending the ICPO Family Day. The London office of Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas, part of the Irish Chaplaincy, covers England and Wales, while the Maynooth office helps Irish people imprisoned elsewhere in the world. Last year I had the privilege of attending this day in Dublin and meeting in person some of those who have a loved one in prison. And it’s true that it’s not just the person incarcerated who serves a sentence. The family also serve a kind of a sentence, and are in need of basic human kindness.
This year the Family Day took place via zoom and it included a presentation from a man who is coming to the end of a 15-year sentence served in English prisons (and who maintains his innocence), throughout which he has been supported by ICPO. He told of how he had a dream one night in his cell about a sequence of yoga moves. Acting on this dream and thanks to a grant that the Irish Chaplaincy obtained from IYF, the Irish Youth Foundation, he took his first yoga course. Later, with another IYF grant, he completed his yoga teacher qualification, produced an accredited yoga course and is now teaching others. He has also made mindfulness CDs and these have formed part of the in-cell resources pack that we have sent to hundreds of people during lockdown.
It was one of the most inspiring presentations I’ve ever heard. And what’s more, straight after the conference I was having lunch with Donna, a new fundraiser at IYF, to tell her about the impact of IYF’s funding. It was such a pleasure to be able to tell her about the man who had become a yoga teacher thanks in part to IYF grants, as well I’m sure as multiple acts of kindness from those supporting him. I also quoted to her the lovely Sister P. who had a couple of days earlier sent us a message after receiving a large consignment of in-cell resource packs, which we’ve been able to supply due to additional Covid-19 response funding from the Emigrant Support Programme and other grants:
“I really am speechless. Your generous and most useful packs were received with great joy, much laughter, lots of love and gratitude. Our GRT community felt so loved and most of all special. The officers joined in the celebrations and willingly carried the packs to the furthest wings. It was the most joyful and really happy occasion of my 18 years as chaplain in HMP Chelmsford.”
And so to my phone call with Sharon at the MOJ. She was really nice, and very sympathetic to our situation with regard to the prisoner payments from November 2nd. We looked at various options together and she promised to do all she could to help. I was a bit worn out following all the excitement of the week but I left for the monastery feeling immense gratitude for the many great people I come into contact with and for their many acts of kindness