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How one Catholic charity is helping the most marginalised of all – prisoners

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As the media headlines often report, today’s prisons are facing severe challenges and some are in crisis. Behind the media reports are the men and women who are locked up, hidden from the public eye behind closed doors. Problems such as self-harm, suicide, drug addiction, violence and mental illness affect prisoners everywhere, and have an untold impact on those who work close to them.

Catholic charity the St Vincent de Paul Society (SVP) is highlighting the plight of prisoners in the final week of its campaign Beyond Boundaries which has been running throughout September. Focusing on the hidden poor, the campaign reveals the work done by the SVP’s 10,000 volunteers across England and Wales to reach people often out of sight in need of practical and emotional support.

This week the Society’s campaign is about its work with vulnerable people behind bars. SVP groups are often closely involved in visiting prisons and supporting prison staff and inmates.

Pat Morton is a member of St Dismas SVP group in Durham and explains that the SVP’s work in prisons is very varied. “We support the Chaplain at the prisons, providing small treats for prisoners like Easter eggs, chocolate biscuits at Christmas, and fulfilling unexpected requests. For instance, a prisoner recently broke his glasses and could not afford a replacement pair. We provided a small grant so that he could purchase new glasses, recognising the importance of this to the prisoner.” Pat says that some members also support prisoners when they leave prison, helping them make the transition back into society. “That work is vital” she says.

The SVP has a special role with prisoners. Pat says: “SVP members do more than social work. They visit for the development of the person, their spiritual development. Anyone can break the law and end up in prison. We help remind and reassure them that they are still part of humanity, still part of the wider world.”

The effects of the visits, says Pat, is that the prisoners feel better, calmer and this also helps the staff.

Talking more about the spiritual care that the SVP gives prisoners Pat explains that volunteers pray with them, give them prayer resources and work together with the Chaplaincy group to put across the Christian message.

“The spiritual side is vital,” says Pat. “I think they need spiritual input and some of them thirst for it. They have had Baptisms sometimes, and we provide baptismal certificates for them.” Likewise, the SVP provide certificates if the prisoners complete religious or other courses. “This is so important in young offenders’ institutes where most of them have never been praised or gained a qualification.” Pat says visiting and supporting prisoners “makes you understand humanity more. It makes you more tolerant of people, it changes you as a person. It certainly changed me.”

At HMP Hindley in South West Lancashire, the prison chaplains have themselves formed an SVP group within the prison. The SVP uses its funds to buy board games, chess sets, musical instruments and art and reading materials for the men to help alleviate their mental health conditions and reduce the risk of them wanting to harm themselves.

One prisoner, known as Neil, says: “The beginning of prison is mental illness.” He describes how he and his peers are “family men” and being separated from their loved ones takes its toll in the form of depression, often resulting in self-harm and addictions. However, another prisoner – George says that “the small things the SVP does for us, like buying us reading glasses so we can read books, or giving us a guitar, mean we can feel good without taking drugs”.

SVP Trustee Ian Kempsell is in regular contact with the SVP group in the prison and says that getting to know the true nature of the men at HMP Hindley was “humbling” and “eye opening”.

Ian says: “Society so often paints all prisoners with the same tarnished brush, making them all out to be violent and dangerous. The reality is that more than 50% of people in prison have been abused in childhood, and most have mental health conditions. Prisoners need rehabilitation and care as much as there is a need for punishment. That is where the SVP comes in – helping staff and chaplains reach the more vulnerable men and women, giving them hope and friendship, and affirming their dignity and humanity. I find that visiting and working with the men is truly inspiring.”

The SVP helps people in all situations of poverty and isolation. If you would like to learn more about the charity’s work, or make a donation, telephone 020 7703 3030, email info@svp.org.uk, or visit www.svp.org.uk.