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Howard League blog · 7 Nov 2022

A speech at the Temple Church for Prisons Week

On 12 October 2022, during Prisons Week, Andrea Coomber was invited to give a speech at Choral Evensong at the Temple Church in London. Her words are transcribed below. 

I feel really honoured to be asked to speak in this beautiful church, affiliated as it is with my Inn of Middle Temple. Over the years, I have sat here in times of deep sadness, to farewell dear friends, as well as in times of celebration and thanks. Tonight, I have been invited to share some thoughts about people in prison.

Since 1866, the Howard League has been working for less crime, safer communities and fewer people in prison. We have a membership of nearly 10,000 people, including many hundreds of people in prison and their families. We provide the only free advice line for children in custody in the country, and lobby government on more evidence-based, humane criminal justice policy.

The theme of this year’s Prisons Week is giving thanks. Anyone who finds themselves in Temple Church this evening has much to give thanks for. For fellowship and family and friends, and I have little doubt that we all treasure these things all the more having come through the experience of a global pandemic and the restrictions it brought.

Tonight, I am going to speak to you about what that period looked like for people in prison, and its ongoing reverberations.

But first, some thanks to some unsung heroes.

In 25 years of human rights work, I have often been struck by the commitment of people of faith to standing up to injustice and to standing by people who have been marginalised by society. My work over the past year in the prisons space has been no different. Like all human rights work, very many people working for NGOs and service providers are drawn to the work through their faith. And more directly, there is the prison chaplaincy. On countless occasions I have seen prison chaplains and imams approach governors about a person in seg who needs mental health support, have a quiet word about someone who needs a doctor or have referred a child in distress to our advice line.

The prison chaplaincy is at the front line of our criminal justice system, day in and day out, speaking up for vulnerable people in prison – regardless of their faith or none – and I see them as among the most powerful, humane voices for changing our broken system.

At no time has that system felt as broken as over the past few years. In the early days of Covid, it was modelled that 2,700 people of the 80,000 people in prison would die of the virus. While in other countries, thousands of people were released from prison to avoid the virus – old people, pregnant women, people on short sentences for non-violent offences – in England and Wales we released only 316 people.  All the while, the delays in the Crown Court meant that more and more people were being held in prison on remand, sometimes for years.

I see the prison chaplaincy as among the most powerful, humane voices for changing our broken system.

In England and Wales we contained the virus by locking people in their cells, often for 23 hours a day. In terms of limiting deaths this mostly worked, with only 206 people dying of the virus to the end of August this year.

But as you’d expect, such extreme measures have come at a huge cost – education, work, therapy, external programmes were all suspended. Earlier in the year, we surveyed our members in prison and their families who shared stories of isolation, hopelessness and crumbling mental health. Prison visits were suspended, meaning that the vital family contact was lost, amid increasing concerns from people inside for the health and wellbeing of their loved ones outside.

In thinking about this lecture, I spoke to some of my colleagues who were serving prisoners during this period, one of whom is with me tonight.

For Lee, the removal of routine was soul-destroying, particularly as he is, like so many people in prison, autistic. He spoke of immense frustration, made worse by having no one to complain to; of loneliness, deteriorating mental health and of lacking confidence that the prison – on which his life was entirely dependent – really knew what it was doing to keep him safe.

Ryan focused his comments on the experience for people of faith.

It’s worth remembering that prison is an alien, often scary environment. By design, it is disempowering, which makes it extremely anxiety-inducing and deeply lonely. When people are lonely, we reach out for help and connections. In prison, this can sometimes result in people being exploited and taken advantage of. By contrast, religion can provide an accepting, welcoming and safe space.

As Ryan wrote: ‘”Having the opportunity to be accepted within a community regardless of your past offers great incentive for those seeking togetherness. Joining a religious group in circumstances of such vulnerability allows people to come to terms with their imprisonment. Once you have chosen this path and become secure in what is otherwise an unstable environment, you cherish belonging to a religious group.

“Being part of a religious community can act as a transformative moment for many people in prison. Being accepted into a community that loves you regardless of your past; welcomes you weekly – sometimes daily – and connects you with hundreds of like-minded individuals can be unbelievably positive for a sense of self-worth. It’s almost like you are reborn as a person, and you can come to terms with your imprisonment, moving forward and envisaging a better future post-release.”

There is so much kindness and human potential behind our prison doors, kept from public consciousness.

He goes on –

“Now, what happens when a pandemic hits the world, and all this is taken away. Quite simply, the reverse! Individuals who have spent months, sometimes years, rebuilding their character and outlook on life had it all taken away by lockdown. Religious services were stopped, the religious leaders were not allowed in the prison as regularly and when they were, they weren’t allowed direct contact with individuals.”

For very many, the connection that religion offered was replaced with loneliness, hopelessness and resentment. Covid was hard for everyone in prison, but for people of faith, the contrast was arguably all the more devastating.

We are all grateful for the return to normal and have the sense that Covid is mostly behind us or is at least manageable. However, for very many people in prison, the restrictions imposed by the pandemic continue. In many prisons people who don’t have prison jobs are still banged up 22-and-a-half hours a day.

This is in part because the pandemic came at a time of significant disruption to prison staffing, with many prisons now having 60 to 70 per cent of staff having only worked in a prison during Covid, with everyone locked in their cells. The prospect of opening up prisons to people who have been isolated for so long, with inexperienced staff, is understandably cause for concern.

For example, in June I was visiting a rural women’s prison, where the staffing shortages mean that there are nearly 300 women still on 23-hour lock up.

We all know that the pandemic brought out the best in many people, and I should say that that was no different in prison. One of the highlights in Ryan’s pandemic was that on Thursday evenings at 7pm, the men were allowed out of cells to clap for the NHS.

The highlight of their week, and a chance to be connected to each other and to the rest of the country. And there are the stories of personal sacrifice; of men who are reading tutors for the Shannon Trust, who – rather than showering or calling family – used their one hour out of cells a day to help another prisoner to learn to read.

There is so much kindness and human potential behind our prison doors, kept from public consciousness. People are out of sight and out of mind. I am hugely grateful for the initiative that is Prisons Week, and to Temple Church and to you all for taking the time tonight to think about and pray for those affected by our criminal justice system. They need all the support they can get.

Andrea Coomber


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