New life inside the walls of young offenders’ institutions
A key strand of The Message’s work with young people is in the North West’s young offenders’ institutions. We spent time with the Reflex team to find out more.
Most people have no real concept of what life in prison is like. Our impressions from TV or fiction will be of a lonely, hopeless place; a long wait for freedom.
But imagine if, even before you reached adulthood, you found yourself being punished for a bad decision you made and facing a long stretch behind bars.
For the approximately 2,000 young offenders in prisons across the North West and several hundred more in juvenile units, this is the desperate reality.
With convictions ranging from violent and sexual offences, to robbery, burglary, and drug offences, many are facing sentences which will steal many of their best years. And upon release, they’ll face even bigger challenges of resettlement and reintegration into society. Their sentence won’t end when they walk out of the prison gates.
‘We do everything we can to give hard-to-reach young people vision and hope, to stop them making the kinds of mistakes that will land them in prison,’ says Message CEO Andy Hawthorne. ‘But we realised that for some, we were getting there too late. More than anything, lads and girls in prison need to hear about Jesus and be offered the hope that only he can bring.’
Reflex mainly works with young offenders: in other words, young men and women convicted of a criminal offence between the ages of 18 and 21. But they also work with juvenile offenders aged 17 and under. Most are male but some 16% are female.
Simon Sullivan manages the Reflex team of four full-time staff, two interns and a large team of volunteers. He’s been working with the Message since 2006 when he felt God call him away from a 20 year career in engineering:
‘There’s such a need for Christian workers in Young Offenders’ Institutes. Even though prison chaplains do fantastic work, not many have worked with young people or know what to do with them. Reflex came about to work alongside them in doing a difficult and important job.’
But over the last few years, the team has developed a broader and more holistic programme designed to address what experts say are the four main reasons young people offend. Crime among young people frequently stems from a lack of positive role models, low self-esteem and confidence, a lack of achievement and non-constructive use of leisure time.
Simon sees it as no coincidence that the very things that experts name as the root causes of offending are also the four main ways Reflex positively affects the young offenders they come into contact with.
‘We’re spiritual fathers, significant role models, to loads of lads and girls. They are learning to be fathered. Once they’ve got that, they’ve got security and self-esteem. Jesus said “knowing the truth sets you free”. Once they get that truth, they can be free.’
To help address endemic low self-esteem among young offenders, the Reflex team aims to show them their true identity as people made in the image of God.
They emphasise that God has a plan and purpose for each young person, showing what true achievement looks like and giving them a sense of purpose to move on, living productive lives.
Reflex’s work of building relationships and releasing potential among young offenders now spans first-contact detached work on the prison wings through to help with resettlement back into the community.
Many young offenders first meet the team during ‘association’– daily leisure time. But the team runs several accredited courses during the day, such as the ‘Uncut’ course which helps young offenders to open up about their past, challenges their behaviour and brings them into contact with forgiveness and grace.
Reflex also works together with Twelve24, In Yer Face and other specialist members of the Message team to deliver week-long music, drama and media projects. These are open to all young offenders and in some cases prison officers put names forward. Message teams set the tone but the participants are encouraged to engage creatively, writing lyrics and scripts.
Simon comments: ‘Of course we’re not going to be glorifying crime and drugs. We’re going to talk about identity and what’s next for your life. And ask the question: are you going to walk away from this?’
‘Or say we spend a week doing a music project. It’s not just about the music. What we get out of that is relationships. They spend time with us and they see Christianity proved to them, before their eyes. ‘
But how does this sort of work go down with hardened lads and girls whose lives are broken?
‘They love it. Team building, role play, games, it all helps bring young offenders out of themselves and gives them an amazing sense of achievement.’
Alpha courses in the prison chaplaincy are the way many young offenders get to ask questions about the team’s faith in Jesus, and find answers.
As they find faith, new believers are invited to join daytime discipleship groups, where they can encounter worship, take part in Bible study and pray for one another. The team works through the book of Mark, reading and discussing the text. Here the emphasis is on giving young offenders the skills to live a life of faith: to understand the Bible for themselves, to hear God and to pray.
‘Reading the Bible together and discussing it is so fruitful. We chew it up and think about it together – whether that’s a whole chapter or just a few verses. When you see how the Holy Spirit moves in these lads, it’s astounding. Even though they’re young in their faith, you can see God is doing something amazing.’
Helping ex-offenders get to grips with the real world after a long spell behind bars is crucial and Reflex aims to see all the men and women they have discipled settled into a supportive local church. Some are fed into work through organisations like Project Caleb.
Simon believes this particularly has a massive impact on reoffending. The latest available statistics show that seven out of ten young men released from the young offender custody re-offend within 12 months. However re-offending among Reflex’s clients is rare.
The team sees transformation in the lives of young offenders every day. Across the four institutions, as many as 30 young people responding to the gospel message each month. Some of the stories of transformation are breathtaking:
‘Wayne when he first joined us, his mental health was horrendous,’ remembers Simon. ‘He was brought up by a drug dealer. His dad beat him with crutches when he was a kid. The house he grew up in was raided by the police frequently. That’s all he’d ever been exposed to. When he was in prison he was attending health care all the time, hearing voices in his head.
‘When a lad called Wayne first joined us, his mental health was horrendous,’ remembers Simon. ‘He was brought up by a drug dealer. His dad beat him with crutches when he was a kid. The house he grew up in was raided by the police frequently. That’s all he’d ever been exposed to. When he was in prison he was attending health care all the time, hearing voices in his head.
‘A year later, Wayne was the one asking for worship songs in the group, raising his hands, introducing other people to Jesus. His mental health nurses were coming to our group to find out what we were doing. He was changed and his change was impacting other people. That’s what it’s all about.’
Find out more about Reflex