The smell of sea air, the raucous sound of seagulls, the changeable weather. You might be forgiven for thinking this describes a typical British holiday on the coast. However, this was the backdrop against which two prisons recently hosted retreats run by the Jesuit Institute. We seek to reach people where they are and to empower them, through Ignatian spirituality, towards a deepening relationship with God. Prisons are places where people would not normally choose to go boldly. Prisoners are often out of the sight and mind of the general public, but not of God. The Prison Project offers to walk alongside these residents for a short time, to share prayer, to talk together of God and life.

‘I’ve been able to express things I’ve been through in the past – my relationships – my relationship with God and with my family. Love is the most important part of the relationship.’

The roots of our Prison Project took hold during the Covid-19 pandemic. Realising how invisible the work of prison chaplains is and how dedicated they are to improving the lives of those in their care, the Jesuit Institute offered an online retreat to prison chaplains. We wanted to provide support and a listening ear. 

This was deeply appreciated by many, and they felt that the graces that they had received could also be a great gift to the men and women they serve in the prisons. They wanted the prisoners in their care to experience the love and mercy of God that they themselves experience. They saw the potential of Ignatian ways of praying to help prisoners develop a personal relationship with Jesus through engaging with the gospel. 

They valued Ignatian discernment and how it could offer prisoners opportunities to reflect on the choices they make, which may help them forge a better future. We found that the language of discernment is conducive to a culture of rehabilitation, which is applauded in the prison service.

 

During a later week of formation for ourselves and interested volunteers, we listened as some of those chaplains shared their experience with us, we read about rehabilitation and the Church’s response, and we prayed and conversed together to discover whether Ignatian spirituality might find fertile ground and answer a need within prisons. How might our retreats serve to complement other initiatives in the prisons which strive to develop this culture of rehabilitation?

This initiative was warmly welcomed by the principal chaplains of the Catholic, Anglican and Free Church traditions. They have been instrumental in helping us make this idea become reality. Through them, we have been helped to navigate the security clearance needed to be able to work in prisons for the next five years.    

We adapt an Ignatian retreat experience for prisoners and for prison staff. Each prison has its own culture, and in conversation with the chaplains we seek to identity where Ignatian spirituality and aspects of rehabilitation might best engage in that time and place. The security level of each prison decides what kind of retreat experience we can offer – either a traditional week of guided prayer or an encounter week, which is more group-orientated with workshops.

Through guided prayer, discussion and reflection we hope that prisoners experience the love God has for them and hope for their future lives.

Through the week we explore how deepening a loving relationship with God can help prisoners cope with difficulties and loneliness.

‘[The retreat] brought me back to my past, where I lost God, and where I found him again.’

The prisoners are offered tools to make better choices and develop good habits.

 ’When I got back to the wing, I had quiet time to think about my life – sometimes going too fast – I need time to be still.’ (After the workshop on ‘Making good choices’)

We explore what’s really important in life and what might get in the way. We invite each person to discover more of the truth of who they are and the good within. We encourage them to expand their hope for the future, offering our own belief that a better future is possible.

‘I will continue to use the prayers especially “Jesus healing my shoulder”. Thanks to all for your wonderful stories. I am that man in Luke keeping my faith with God into the next chapter in my life.’

Some days after a week of guided prayer in HMP Haverigg, a letter was passed on from a prisoner via the chaplain to the Jesuit Institute team. In the letter, the prisoner recalled praying the psalms during the week. He writes: ‘I’m most drawn to Psalm 32, verse 7: “You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance”.’ And he adds, ‘And so it is’.

Amid the constant noise of clanging doors, the endless shouts of prisoners, the removal of physical freedom and security, there is God who gives refuge, protection and gladness. Our joy is being present as prisoners understand that God has never left them, and never will.

This article was first published in Jesuits and Friends.

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