“Try Prison!”

In Conversation: Transition 24

Interview with Gavin, T24 Coordinator, Prison Fellowship QLD

When you first signed up for T24, what did you hope would come from the program?
Prison Fellowship run amazing in-prison programs, which achieve some incredible results, but I saw a lack of support for released prisoners. I heard the chaplains tell amazing stories about inmates on a positive pathway, who struggled when released without support. It becomes a vicious cycle. They would be back inside within twelve months. Prison Fellowship QLD’s reach stopped at the gate, so I really wanted to see a pathway that supports prisoners upon release.

What is the process for these prisoners? Is there a ‘common’ T24 experience?
T24 is currently a pilot program running in one QLD prison only. We provide twelve months’ support prior to release, then twelve months post-release. Prisoners apply for the program, then I’ll do an assessment. After that I write to the prison requesting a visit. If the prison agrees, I meet with them and build a relationship. Getting to know what their needs are upon release is crucial so that by the time they are released we know exactly how to support them.

Can you tell me a story of someone who has been impacted by being part of T24?
I met Greg* four years ago. He was deeply impacted when he completed the Sycamore Tree Project in prison. Upon release, he had issues trying to reintegrate, but was very positive about wanting to turn his life around. Prison Fellowship was his primary support outside prison. The biggest change in Greg has been his attitude and determination to stay out. He is always asking, ‘How can I help other people turn their lives around?’

How have you seen God working in Greg’s situation?
Greg is growing in his faith, surrounding himself with other believers and attending church regularly. I have seen him stay close and reliant on God during tough times. I admire his courage and strength to get through a traumatic few years – God has given him the strength to keep going when many of us may have given up.

How have you personally been impacted by the program?
I feel so blessed to be surrounded by love and family. It can be easy to take this for granted. There are people out there who have done the wrong thing, want to change, but do not know how to. Everybody deserves a second chance – we are all in need of forgiveness.

What issues are most prevalent in the transition to life outside prison?
Accommodation can be a major issue. Getting work with a criminal record is near impossible. Mental health, connection with family, and having no support make it hard. Even reintegrating into church life can be difficult. It has been challenging to get church engagement with the program, which has surprised me.

What advice would you give to churches who are unsure how to support ex-prisoners?
The majority of inmates are going to be released. As Christians, we should desire to see ex-inmates find community and support within the church. We have to change our perception of prisoners. We need to support them, just like anyone else in need – this will make the community a safer place. They are the forgotten and often marginalised in our society. We need to be prayerful about the local church’s role in reintegration. Prison Fellowship will play a major part in supporting churches. We will walk with you on this journey! We won’t leave you to walk this path with ex-prisoners alone.

The “Too Hard” Box

When she walked in she had everyone’s attention. She ran the room and she knew it. Taylah* was heavily-built, covered in tattoos, and had one of those domineering personalities that silenced the other women. The Prisoner’s Journey facilitator, Maire, says that Taylah’s presence made the other prisoners in the course feel discouraged.

After two weeks of this tension, Maire decided to pull the imposing woman aside. “I had to really pray, because I thought this is either going to go really good or really bad!!”

“She was so hostile, but I said to her, ‘you need to look at me.’ When she did, the look in her eyes made me think, ‘oh no…!’

“‘You are distracting the class, and I’m telling you this because I respect you,’ I told her. ‘You need to calm down. There are people who are going through things, and you need to respect everyone else.’

“From that day forth it changed our relationship. She really started to calm down. She was doing her homework and sharing her story with the group. In the past when she had tried to change, she was discouraged about relapsing. But she had been trying to change on her own. By the end of the course she was a different person and was desperate for a mentor to meet with regularly!

“The other women were so proud of her because they knew she was the angry one. But now she is able to walk away from fights and you can see that change in her,” Maire says.

Maire & her husband

Maire says a lot of the women had been looking for a purpose. “We shared with them the message of Jesus. They would tell me, ‘we always knew he died but didn’t understand the extent of why he died!’ Their anger reduced over a period of time as they began to understand the message of the cross a lot more.”

A few times Maire began to doubt herself. She would question whether God had really called her to work in prisons. But it was the support from the other volunteers with her that helped her process that feeling. “‘Are you kidding?!’ they would say. ‘Of course you will come up against doubts when you are moving forwards.’”

“I never want to give up on someone,” says Maire, “because I know that Jesus never gave up on me. I have a heart for seeing the best in people behind bars. So many people put them in the ‘too hard box’ but that’s not the way of Jesus. God is faithful. His love isn’t restricted to certain people based on their past.

Having now completed two courses of The Prisoner’s Journey, Maire is training to be a prison chaplain in Queensland. “I am so excited! I’ve been looking for something like Prison Fellowship for nearly seven years. At the moment I’m here only once a week, but when I’m here as a chaplain as well, I think maybe these guys are going to get sick of me!” Maire laughs.

“An encouragement I want to share is don’t pass the buck to someone else. Don’t wait for someone else to step up when you are called to step up. Trust that the Lord has a better plan for you than you have for yourself. Willingness and availability are so important,” says Maire.

– Joanna Mann, Staff Writer

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