Bob Wilson – Prison Chaplain

Minutes of the AGM talk given by Bob Wilson on Wednesday 30th September 2015.
Bob Wilson has worked in prison chaplaincy for 20 years. 9 years ago he was associate pastor at the Baptist Church in King’s Lynn. The theme of Bob’s talk about prisons was change. The church does have a valuable role in helping prisoners not to re-offend after they are released. Bob’s route into prison chaplaincy was reluctant. In 1995 Bob found himself outside Norwich prison preparing to go into the prison for the first time but frightened. The feeling was the same before he visited the Verne Prison at Portland. But God is gracious and once Bob started to go into prison regularly he realised that God wanted him to be there and he felt at home. We exist by the grace of God so when we meet prisoners we can think that this prisoner could be me. Bob now acts as co-ordinator for all the Free Church chaplains in the UK.
Bob introduced the audience to some interesting statistics. So much about prisons has changed and continues to change. In 2010 the UK prison service lost 28% of its staff. The average number of days of sick leave per year for prison staff is 10.8 compared to the UK work force average of 4.4. 200,000 children in the UK have a parent in prison. 49% of violent crimes are committed under the influence of alcohol. 45% of women released from prison are reconvicted within one year. 25% of women and 15% of men in prisons have symptoms of psychosis. 46% of women in prison have attempted suicide. There are currently 85,892 men, women and children in prison. This number of prisoners has doubled over recent years but these increasing numbers of prisoners are looked after by 12,500 less staff. Between June 1993 and June 2012 the prison population increased by 41800, while the government introduced a 30% cut in legal aid funding between 2012 and 2015.
The stated functions of prison are threefold; to punish the offender, to protect the public and to rehabilitate the offender. The system is good at the first two of these aims but not so good at the last. There is a drugs problem in prisons and the big thing currently is what is called ‘legal highs’. There has been an increase in older prisoner numbers following the historic child abuse investigations and the numbers of prisoners committing suicide in prison has increased by 75% in the past year. The Justice Secretary Michael Gove has recently quoted Winston Churchill who said that there is a treasure if you can find it in the heart of every person.
Bob quoted Alvin Toffler who said that ‘the illiterate of the 21st Century will not be those who are unable to read or write but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn’. Bob also read St Paul 1 Corinthians 13 the famous passage about love. Love is the attitude to take when visiting prisoners. Faith is important to prisoners who may be people searching for their better days. In surveys of prisoners and prison staff faith is important, and legally there has to be a prison chaplain for every prison. Chaplains need to be people of hope. The statistics show that 35% of released prisoners do not re-offend.
Bob has met many different prisoners suffering in different ways. There may be the pain of remorse, an addiction to anger following abuse in childhood or the struggle to forgive.
Criminals are being released from prison at a high rate of 80,000 per year. Of those 12,000 would have been involved in church while they were in prison. But after release only 2000 will continue with church attendance. This is why it is so important for church communities to be welcoming to ex-prisoners and not judgemental or superior. Trust is one of the biggest factors which prevent re-offending. Those who have a bad experience of a faith community are more likely to re-offend. Faith that God is alive in a hurting world is important to some prisoners.
There is a lack of resources for mental health issues which are a very big problem in prisons. The prisoner needs to improve their self-esteem, find self-forgiveness and see themselves as a person who can come before God and the victim and ask for forgiveness. One of the biggest factors which make true repentance more likely is the person’s 30th birthday. Good family ties are also important.
The Welcome Directory is a pilot project which aims to educate faith communities to welcome prisoners.