He moves deliberately across the grassed area of the medium security prison grounds where prisoners are able to mingle, and walks up to Brenda. She is with two other Prison Fellowship volunteers, Alex and Lee, as they wait to move through the security doors leading to one of the presentation rooms. Here they would again deliver Change On The Inside, a character development course delivered regularly to inmates who choose to participate.
The smile on his face is broad and radiates a gentle demeanour. Brenda peers into what seems like a distant familiarity. With eyes engaging he asks, “Do you remember me?”
At times, we are lucky enough to see a sudden and radical change in one or two participants in these courses. The instant and unmistakable change comes about as they recognise the unfathomable forgiveness, love, grace, and hope that is the message of new life in Christ.
But more often we see the sowing of seeds. Seeds that just touch the surface of the deep pain of a heart which feels trapped in hopelessness, regret, and the destructive cycles which endlessly repeat themselves.
The Sceptical Student
Lee, Alex, and Brenda enter through the security door and move to the sparse room where they set about creating a welcoming environment in which to run the course. As the inmates begin to filter in, the atmosphere is tense with cautious appraising between the inmates, many of whom do not know each other. But there is also reciprocal appraising between the inmates and volunteers as the dynamics of each is assessed.
Sean is instantly recognisable as a larger than life character among the other inmates on that first day of the course. Discarding the chair set out for him at the table, he pulls up a more comfortable one. “I was told this course was really good,” he says, his challenge and scepticism clearly conveyed.
As they begin, the men are asked to consider and share what they would do differently. It is a time when Lee encourages the participants to consider what they would do if they could get a moment in time back. It is a time to delve inward, to places deeply covered over.
A time to reflect. A time of courage.
“I would use a different drug,” is Sean’s initial loud response, with his chin tilted up in defiance.
At the end of the course, however, it is a very different Sean who emerges. On the last day of the course, the participants are invited to reflect and share about the person they want to be. With his guard down, speaking humbly with clearly defined goals, Sean shares his hopes of personal change and the breaking of endless cycles. The hope now is for real change.
Two Types of Seeds
While Change on the Inside is generally presented face to face in prisons, COVID-19 was the catalyst for the volunteer team to explore ways to keep delivering the program even when they could not enter the prison.
The challenge of delivering a meaningful course over the internet from a screen to a group of men in a room far away is indeed great. Especially when you consider that these men generally have nothing in common with each other, except that they are ‘on the inside’.
During this time of remote delivery, and for the entire 6 weeks of the course, Dale sat disengaged with his head down, and his face drawn and serious. When he did occasionally look at the screen, the pain in his eyes was visible. He was reluctant to participate, totally detached from the men on either side of him, and quiet while the others around him contributed and engaged on various levels.
On the last day of the course, Dale shared only a few superficial words about the man he wanted to become. Yet, despite his quietness, he recognised his need for change. All the while, he had been writing, making notes, and concentrating on the content of his participant manual open in front of him.
Another participant, Matthew, had responded to the question of what he could have done differently from a place of self-awareness and ownership, “I could have made the choice not to use drugs, and not to hurt my wife and children so deeply, and ruin my life and theirs.” The pain, regret, and remorse was very evident in this husband and father.
Matthew, being a reasonably tall man, generally stood out in a room. But it was his beaming face that struck Alex as their eyes met sometime later at an unrelated event in the prison. The excitement of the unexpected meeting was for both men, overwhelming. Alex left his seat and Matthew left the line formation he was part of, and they gave each other the warmest of hugs, forgetting in that moment that they were in a prison. It was evident to everyone in the room that Matthew knew what it meant to be changed on the inside. The seeds of hope were thriving in the softness of his heart.
Before entering through the security door that summer day, Brenda had continued to peer for a moment through that which felt so familiar, yet also seemed so different in the face and eyes of the man before her.
And then she smiled.
“Yes Dale, of course I remember you. I remember you well.”
All names have been changed