We’ve all seen prison dramas – and prison comedies – but what is life inside really like?  Much grittier and more desolate than we could imagine. Prison chaplains – of many faiths – are there to offer support to all, from shoplifters to killers.

As of 27 May 2022, the UK prison population was 80,200. As of March 2019, the total number of employed prison chaplains was 474. Katy Canty spent many years working as a prison chaplain. In the recently-published Heartbreak, Hope and Holy Moments she shares some of her experiences and insights, to try to help others understand more fully what prison is really like – and who prisoners really are.

Care and Separation Unit (CSU) used to be called ‘Segregation’ or ‘the Block’, but its name was changed to give it a more therapeutic overtone. At the same time, the place itself was repainted from grey to brighter colours, and prisoners’ works of art were displayed, which gave it the appearance of a slightly deserted gallery. Prisoners who end up being sent here will be those who have infringed prison rules, such as being involved in fights or assaults, being found in possession of drugs or phones or generally exhibiting behaviour that is too volatile or unpredictable to be sustained on a regular Unit. Increasingly we are seeing prisoners who have taken Spice (Mamba) and who are therefore often violent and unpredictable. Every day there are adjudications and prisoners are transferred back to normal locations when they have served their allotted time of separation. However, some men do remain in CSU for a while, often awaiting transfer to another prison. 

Natural heart shape in a barbed wire fence on cloudscape background. Flock of birds flying through heart. Love, freedom, peace, hope and compassion concepts.

Our daily rounds are of a routine nature, and we are aware that many of the men do not wish to engage in long or deep conversations with a Chaplain, especially one they see day after day! But our presence is understood and I remember one man completely humbling me when he met me on a Unit one day saying, ‘You came to visit me when I was in Seg.’ I felt dreadful as I had no recollection of him and had probably only asked if he was ‘OK’, and yet the presence of a caring face must have made such an impression on him. And the fact that we visit them means that we are there if they need us; sometimes a man would ask me to bless him or, more often to come and light a candle with him on an anniversary, since it would be difficult for them to come over to the chapel as they are on restricted conditions. 

Probably the most memorable visit was when I was asked to light a candle with a very unstable and disturbed man. In fact, he was considered so dangerous that he was a ‘five-man unlock’ – something I have never seen before or since. Some of the men can have their doors opened by a single officer or most when two officers are present. If someone is particularly difficult, three men are required, but five men obviously indicated a very violent man. In addition to that, these officers were dressed in riot gear in case the man ‘kicked off’ and they had to come and rescue me. I remember being extremely nervous as I waited to go in to the cell, and with the usual sense that of myself I had nothing to give. However, when I entered the cell the prisoner was very polite and respectful, and we lit the candle and I prayed with him. It was an odd situation as I realised I stood as a woman with him alone whilst outside there were five hefty men poised to defend! I have to admit I did not prolong the encounter and escaped as soon as I could! 

Because men in CSU have broken prison rules, they are often denied privileges. If their behaviour is very poor they lose everything including their personal possessions for the time they are there. However, they are allowed to have a Bible (or Qur’an) if they require one, and we are also allowed to give them faith literature. In actual fact, many of the prisoners asked for Bibles whilst they were in CSU. There were probably many and varied reasons for this. The small Testaments provided by the Gideons were just the right size to act as Rizla papers for their ’smokes’. If they had no tobacco because they had lost their right to buy it, they might smoke their tea bags! We only hoped that maybe some of them might get to read the ‘holy’ Rizla paper as they rolled it! Many lads did read the Bible whilst in CSU as it was something to do. They also devoured Christian books that we gave to them – stories of other men who had got it all wrong, been to prison and found God and a new way of life.

It was to CSU that they brought Daniel. He was in a terrible state – deeply distressed and suicidal. He had taken a life, and felt so guilty and remorseful that he felt that his own life was not worth living. He had a chequered background – had struggled with education and had been bullied all his life. Now he had got into trouble in prison, hence his arrival in CSU. He was so profoundly suicidal that they took the ultimate step of putting him in ‘strips’ (a gown that is made of very tough fabric so that it cannot be torn into ligatures). He was put into the special cell which contains no fixtures or fittings to which ligatures could be attached. In essence, it contains a low-level concrete block and nothing else. Through his tears, Daniel cried that prison officers had taken away his rosary beads and that he needed them to sleep at night. The officers had removed them because the string of beads might also be used as a ligature. What I did bring him was a small card with a picture of the cross on it which we give to prisoners when they visit chapel for a bereavement. It had a bright blue background and Daniel attached it to the wall – possibly with toothpaste. In that dark grey cell, it was the only thing there and it seemed to me that it almost ‘glowed’ on the wall. I prayed with him and carried on praying that he would not attempt to take his own life. Years later, he told me that at the time he had had razor blades on him, but that after our prayer he had not used them and the picture ‘got him through the night’. He has gone from strength to strength with therapeutic help. 

Catholic church symbols and handcuffs. Church and crime

The Healthcare Unit in prison contains twelve beds and is usually fully occupied. Here we tend to those who are ill physically and mentally. The pressure on accommodation here is enormous. Those who are physically ill do not remain here long, unless they are terminally ill or in the last stages. Many in the Unit are those with acute mental health issues. Ideally, they would not remain here long either, but the sad fact is that there is a massive waiting time to get anyone into more suitable outside institutions. And so we tend to those who are sick in so many different ways, and Chaplains make a daily visit to speak to each of these men. 

We see some amazingly bad injuries that have often occurred before the men come into prison. Bones are broken when unsuccessful burglars really do fall off drainpipes! I remember one lad who told me he was running away from the police and jumped into what he thought was a canal to escape from them, but unfortunately it turned out to be the railway track and he had completely shattered most of his leg bones. 

My first glimpse of Peter was a terrible sight. It was his first time in prison, and he was devastated at having committed a crime. He had decided to kill himself with a gun and had aimed it at his face. He arrived in prison with his jaw blown apart under his ear and in a state of deep shock. I felt great sympathy for him and said that I would ring his wife to reassure her that he was OK – Daniel was now very concerned about how she would be coping. Peter went through extensive bone surgery, with grafts being taken from his leg, and I often had a chat with him as he remained in Healthcare for months. I rejoiced with him when at last he was able relocate into a normal Unit when his treatment was complete. A year or so later, he was pleased to tell me that he was imminently being released and he just wanted to say thank you to me because I had rung his wife when he first arrived in prison. Again, this was something that had not really remained in my memory, but was another example of a fleeting action which meant so much to a prisoner. 

Another badly fractured jaw belonged to a very sad man called Andrew. He had been in prison before and we had had a lot to do with him. First time round, he told us he was a Roman Catholic by background, and he began to attend Mass at the chapel. So faithful was he, that eventually he was baptised in prison by the priest so that he could receive Mass. He also came to our Bible study group and we spent time having conversations with him. He talked about his broken relationship with his girlfriend and the children that he loved so deeply. He appeared to want to make something of his life, hence his commitment to chapel, and he told me that he had tried to take his life on more than one occasion on the outside, but each time it had failed. I remember that he told me he tried to hang himself from a tree but the branch snapped. We thought he would make something of himself as he left prison but, in a few months’ time, he was back. 

When I saw him I was absolutely shocked. Like Peter, Andrew’s jaw was round the side of his ear, and his face was black and blue. It transpired that he had been in a fight, and his opponent had actually stamped on his face. His physical injuries were treated and his body recovered fairly speedily, but it seemed that his inner self had given up the fight. He stopped coming to chapel and we saw little of him. When we did speak to him, he was always ready to talk, mainly about his children, but a few months after he left prison he at last succeeded in what he had set out to do – he hanged himself to escape from all his inner turmoil and pain. I still have a poem that he wrote for the chapel. 

The other aspect of Healthcare is that here we visit prisoners who are terminally ill and may be dying. I think of Jack, a young lad in his twenties, who was dying of a brain tumour. As far as I recall, he had no friends or family, and he never caused any problems – he was always quiet and respectful. As his condition deteriorated, he became almost blind and staff had to put a large sign on his door so he could make out which was his cell. He went downhill quite fast but was cared for so compassionately by the Healthcare staff. When he died, we had a memorial service for him in the chapel and the staff who had cared for him in Healthcare came and wept; touched at the sadness of the loss of such a young life, whatever his offence. 

With an aging population, in prison we are seeing more and more elderly men who will die whilst they are with us. Although his background was Roman Catholic, Frank preferred to attend Church of England services, and was a regular chapel attender. He was a historic sex offender and had a fairly lengthy sentence. He also came to the Discovery Group that I held on his Vulnerable Prisoner Unit. For a long time, he said very little but seemed to be growing in faith and was reading his Bible and praying. In the group, we study different courses and had used the Alpha course. 

As Frank was in prison for so long, he was still there when I went to repeat Alpha. One evening at the end of the session he quietly shared with the group that on the previous run-through of the course he had prayed the prayer that Nicky Gumbel spoke on the video, and he felt he could ‘let go’ of his past and had found ‘real peace within’. This was borne out by his attitude to life and other prisoners, by whom he was loved and respected. His health gradually faded and he came to Healthcare. I was able to pray with him and he passed away peacefully. He had a Catholic funeral on the outside. We had a memorial service inside, which was well attended by his fellow prisoners, and the accolades he received from them were very touching. Undoubtedly, his quiet presence and kindness had spoken to many of them and he had found peace deep within, despite his surroundings. 

Adapted from Heartbreak, Hope & Holy Moments by Katy Canty. Published by Waverley Abbey Resources

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