Marion Shoard | Writer : Broadcaster : Speaker

Thought for the Day

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Thought for the Day given by Marion Shoard on BBC Radio Kent’s Sunday Programme, 17 November, 2019

About ten years ago I met Canon Michael Butler. A large man with a shock of unruly, white hair and limpid, brown eyes, Michael had retired from his work as a priest in Sussex to the Norfolk countryside. He would tell me of his voluntary work with older male prisoners in Norwich prison, some of them lifers and unvisited, if not disowned, by their families. Michael would visit these older men regularly, chat to them, take services, but also offer the human touch, sending each a birthday card, a postcard when he went on holiday and showing each one great respect through holding a highly personalised funeral service. 

Sadly, Michael was killed in a car crash five years ago, but an organisation with which he was closely associated, Christians on Ageing, continues to work in fields which include the care of older prisoners. Christians on Ageing is an ecumenical group supported by all the main churches and totally reliant on the dedicated effort of volunteers like Michael (who for many years also edited its delightful and informative members’ journal). I had the privilege of being invited to join Christians on Ageing’s executive committee earlier this year and in September helped organise a conference in Sheffield at which the plight of older prisoners was much discussed. Why not read the free, full report of that conference on the Christians on Ageing website? In one talk, Majors Paul and Rita Conley of the Salvation Army described the way in which against all the odds they had managed to set up what is now a very valuable day centre for older and disabled prisoners in HMP Wymott in Lancashire, after Rita Conley had got talking to an old man consumed by utter hopelessness about his plight. 

There is much more still to do. All prisons which house older and disabled prisoners would benefit from such a day centre – not just one or two of them. On the ground however, it is often prisoners themselves who befriend and care for their fellow inmates, so ill-equipped are the buildings and staff of many of our prisons to cope with the needs of frail and disabled people. One delegate at the Christians on Ageing conference described how she was asked by a prison to give training about the care of people with dementia. She turned up on the appointed morning only to find that she was to be training not the staff, as she’d assumed, but the prisoners. 

Christianity is not an easy faith to follow. Jesus commanded His followers not to focus on doing all they can for their blood families and treating everyone else as less significant, as we are accustomed to do, especially at Christmas, but rather to help people in greatest need – those who are hungry, thirsty, too poor to have adequate clothes, people who are sick, strangers in our midst, and people in prison. In a famous passage recorded in chapter 25 of the Gospel of St Matthew not long before He himself was imprisoned and executed, Jesus explained to His followers that the most important test of their commitment to the Christian faith would be whether they had offered food, drink and clothing to the needy, care to the sick, a welcome to strangers, and visited people in prison. 

Visiting prisoners can also include writing to them. At the Christians on Ageing conference we heard of sisters at a Franciscan centre in Manchester. Most of them are still fit enough to go out into the community – including an 84-year old sister who, full-time, runs a centre for homeless people in Manchester and two others, aged 85 and 87, who do part-time work in the community. Still older sisters continue to follow their Christian calling by penning letters to prisoners on death row in the United States. 

One other group in our society who can feel they are imprisoned are the 400,000 older and disabled people living in Britain’s care homes – five times the number of people in prison. If you are part of a church community planning to go and sing carols in care homes this Christmas, don’t just stand in a tight group and sing – ask the home’s manager if you can go in earlier so each of you has a chance to engage with individual residents.  Visit at other times too. Bring in a local newspaper and chat about local news, ask if the resident would like you to accompany them for a walk outside, perhaps to a local shop or park. Or may be you could take them out for a drive: part of the imprisonment many people living in care homes feel arises from the fact that they rarely, if ever, go outdoors. If the weather is inclement bring in some of the sounds and scents of the natural world, like seaweed from the beach or autumn leaves. 

Then, if you are a parliamentary candidate in the election, make sure you knock on the door of all the care homes in your constituency and engage the people living there in discussion. In Britain, people in prison don’t have a vote, but people in care homes do, and it’s important that homes’ managers make sure that those who would like to cast their vote can actually do so and thereby continue to play an important role in society. 

All these things and many more are surely part and parcel of what it means to “visit people in prison”. This Sunday, can you think of others which, were He alive today, Jesus would energetically flag up?