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Seeking God behind bars

Mass at Wormwood Scrubs prison (

They mostly call you “Miss”, as if you were a schoolteacher. And the whole place does rather have the feel of a school: a big modern, concrete-and-corridors noisy comprehensive.

A modern prison isn’t a dark subterranean dungeon with guttering candles revealing gaunt, bearded faces that have not seen the light of day for years. It’s mostly wide corridors with men in T-shirts and tracksuit bottoms. The prison I visit has good sports facilities and lots of well-equipped classrooms offering courses in everything from a degree in economics to lessons in first aid.

It’s purpose-built and clean. No horrible smells and – unlike another prison which one inmate recently described to me – no cockroaches. The kitchens produce varied and tasty meals and the young men who work there gain qualifications to equip them for working at good hotels and restaurants.

I’m not sure I am really much use at helping with catechesis, but I’m giving it my best shot. The chaplain – a fine priest – uses some of the excellent materials now available, including the Evangelium course from the Catholic Truth Society. There are formal lessons to teach and prayers to say together. Above all, he says “they like seeing someone from the outside, and it’s all part of the Church”.

The materials we use are for everyone – and there are also some things that are directly aimed at those who are “inside”, including a simple booklet with the Daily Office. It has a message from the Archbishop of Westminster reminding the reader that prison walls cannot cut us off from God or the fellowship of the Church.

There are always a number of men who are seeking baptism or, more often, confirmation. Many – not all – males who end up in prison come from what are coyly called “dysfunctional” families. The biggest single common factor seems to be the lack of a good father.

“Yeah, I’m Catholic” is an identification that means something, but is a bit muddled: Mum or Nan took them to Mass occasionally; they went to a Catholic school. There are often good memories of this but a complete lack of any regular pattern – certainly not weekly – and with no knowledge of much else except some vaguely superstitious folklore. Confirmation didn’t happen because by then they had lost contact with the Church.

Prison is a time for rethinking. And being a Catholic gives status – it marks you out as not Muslim, and it is often proclaimed with a rosary (or more than one) around the neck, and a crucifix or Sacred Heart among the general adolescent-style clutter in the cell.

Probably having catechetical instruction from a tiresome woman in what one might kindly call late middle age is simply something that has to be endured – but at least it helps to present a serious and structured approach: the Church is seen as something large and great, and this is important.

Young men are tribal in nature. The loss of any proper identification with a tribe is a problem for many drifting young people in secularist Britain, with its broken community bonds and lack of a sense of history. The Church can give people back their birthright, as children of God, loved by the Father, redeemed, sanctified, anointed, with a destiny in eternity.

Mass is in a large purpose-designed space also used by other religious groups. The chaplain insists that it be set out correctly with a proper altar with all the trimmings, a large image of the Divine Mercy by the baptismal font and a fine crucifix. This is no coffee table and guitars occasion. Mass is formal and dignified, with good vestments and beautiful altar vessels. The men like singing rousing hymns (Soul of my Saviour is a favourite). There can be inter-religious goodwill; the imam has sometimes got the Muslim men to help make things ready for the Mass.

Elsewhere in the prison there is an awful lot of locking and unlocking of doors, checking and re-checking, and fingerprint isometric identification. There is also what I can only describe as cheery good manners. People call out a friendly “Hello, Father!” to the priest, come up to ask about Confession, shake hands with the catechist when introduced or bring out work to show (“I’ve done all the questions about the Holy Spirit, Miss …”).

Officially, prison jargon is rather politically correct. Every corridor has posters about diversity and so on, and there are reminders about counselling and meditation and anger management courses. There is also an emphasis on what are probably called core values, things like fairness, efficiency, respect. At its best, this can mean things for which traditionally British officialdom always stood – perhaps, as with the Armed Forces, values linger here which have given way to slogans and bureaucracy elsewhere.

The main things I have learned so far (and I’m still learning) are, in no particular order: the fundamental importance of fatherhood (the priest can at least offer a sort of father-image and in doing so is doing more good than he realises); the value of teaching the faith in a structured way; the huge burden of muddled regrets and unhappiness that so many people carry; the awesome beauty of the Sacrament of Reconciliation; the importance of realising that you are never going to be anyone’s saviour, and that any good that is achieved is in and through Christ. There is a lot of injustice and unfairness, and feminists are quite wrong when they claim that it’s mostly women who suffer from it.

What can Catholics do about prisons? The Church operates within and beyond prison walls. Those inside are quarrelsome, bitter, unrealistically optimistic, regretful, worried, frightened, repentant, proud, confused and longing to belong to something larger than themselves. A bit like the rest of us, actually.

Joanna Bogle is an author, broadcaster and journalist

This article first appeared in the June 3 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here