You have heard that someone you know is in prison. What can you do?
England has the highest imprisonment rate in Western Europe. Most prisoners (over 70%) have committed a non-violent offence, almost half of those in prison are serving six months or less. It is not at all unusual to find out that someone you know has gone to prison.
What can you do to show you care? Christians have always had a concern for those in prison. All of us fall short of God’s standards. Jesus said ‘let the one who is without guilt cast the first stone.’ (John 8.1-7) We are called to remember, and pray for, those in prison. (Hebrews 13.3)
What can we do practically? This depends on how well you know the person. Going into prison is a frightening and extremely isolating experience. Find out where the prisoner is being held and, if you can, try to send a short note or card saying you are thinking of them. A colourful postcard with an attractive view is a good idea. Prisons can be very drab, a card is often welcome as attractive decoration.
Don’t worry about what to write. Write as a friend. A few items of ‘chatty’ news and enquiry after the prisoner’s well being are good. On the whole don’t enter into the details of the case or legal issues – that will be for others to help with.
You can ‘e mail’ a prisoner. This helpful website allows you to type a short letter. It is printed out and handed to the prisoner, in many cases they can receive a reply sheet to write back to you. This is a straightforward way of contact.
Prisoners are paid a small amount of money each week. It is sufficient for their daily needs. There are spending limits. Sometimes prisoners ask friends to send money. On the whole avoid doing this, and if you do be very clear what the limit is – say £10 a few weeks before Christmas. You can transfer money electronically to a prisoner.
You may decide to visit. If you do plan well in advance. Look at information on visiting the prison. Visits can be booked online, and there are helpful websites (for example here) with useful tips about visiting.
Small gestures can mean a lot to prisoners, but also be alert as they run the risk of being misinterpreted. Your care will be welcome, but be clear too about the boundaries. Be reliable. If you say you are going to write, do so – even if it is just once every four months or whatever.
Remember that you are not alone in caring. The prisoner may have several people visiting among their families and friends. If you have a particular concern for a prisoner speak with someone about it. You could phone the prison and mention your concern, perhaps speaking to a chaplain. The prison has a duty of care for prisoners and will take your concern seriously.
It is a strange but true fact that many people who write to or visit prisoners say how much they receive themselves from doing so.
“When I was in prison you visited me” (Matthew 25.37)
Several years ago Fr Ian established a group of volunteers to visit isolated prisoners in a maximum security prison.