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Giving women in prison hope for a fresh start

Sally had plenty of misgivings about joining a ministry working in a women's prison. Now she counts it a privilege. Here's some of her story ...

Hi. I’m the Development Manager for Imago Dei (ID) Prison Ministry.

Well, that’s a grand sounding title and I’m not where I thought I would ever be.

13 years ago I was going through a divorce I didn’t want, depressed and just about to be made redundant. I thought my life was over and some days I wished it was. But I ended up working for a guy that ran a charity for men coming out of prison. A big leap from being an interior designer in the Cotswolds!

My first visit to a prison took me a week to get over. The overwhelming feeling I was left with was one of hopelessness and waste of life. I saw and heard things I had never done before in my very sheltered life.  But for some unknown reason, from that moment on I was hooked. I just loved going into prisons!

After a few years and lots of house moves, I ended up working for ID Prison Ministry, which is, in my opinion, one of the best charities in the country. I know. I’m biased!

I love my job and many days it really doesn’t even feel like work. ID has some amazing staff and volunteers and Tracy, the director of the charity, is one of my heroes. She has more determination, vision and stamina than I will ever have. And with the biggest, most generous heart. (But don’t ever tell her I said that. She will just say it’s all teamwork!)

I recently spent time with her in one prison and had the privilege of watching her in action as she stood outside a woman’s cell talking to her through the flap – we’ll call her 'Jo' (not her real name). Tracy listened with calm, patience and understanding as Jo poured out her anger, frustration and pain. Tracy was probably the only person who had listened to her in a while, taken the time to really hear her, and she knew that Tracy would do all she could to see that Jo got the help she needed to make it through.

I stood, out of sight praying that Jo wouldn’t go back down into the dark, self-harming pit she had so often ended up in before.

Part of the charity's ministry is to run courses to build up the
women's self-esteem and confidence, so they can face the
future with hope when they leave prison

So, what does a typical week look like for me? I do what lots of the staff and volunteers do for ID. I facilitate courses that help the women to face and deal with some of the deepest pain they carry. Our courses, FLOURISH, Understanding Loss and Understanding Forgiveness, amongst others, help women to work through their pain and incredible low self-esteem (over 50% of women have been abused as children, 48% have been in abusive relationship and around 30% have spent time in care as kids) as we tell them how amazing they are, how strong they are and how much we believe in them. Through our courses, we also give them useful tools they can use throughout their lives.

I will say though, when I was first asked to work in a women’s prison I thought, “No way! I know what women can be like. And stick over 300 of them in one place together. No thank you”. But actually, I have found it an incredible privilege to work with these women. To help them see themselves and their future in a better light. And we know that the work of ID makes a difference, we have the women’s comments to prove it.

"I am my own person, and no one can bring me down. This course has saved me and helped me to be more positive. It gave me a new outlook and a focus for the future. My friends on the wing now see the real me. I think the course should be compulsory for everyone in prison. It’s the best course I have done. It was so moving and powerful."

So what else do I do? I work on our Grace House project. If you ever meet me and get me talking about Grace House, I won’t shut up for hours. You have been warned!

Grace House is going to be accommodation for women coming out of prison.

In our work we kept hearing appalling stories of women who had got their lives together in prison, done all that they could to get themselves on track and ended up leaving the prison with nowhere to live, sleeping on the streets, getting beaten up and then ending up back in prison. Tracy felt that enough was enough and something had to happen – did I say she was a force to be reckoned with?

Grace House will offer the women safe, comfortable housing with training and support. Many of these women have never been given a chance in life and we want to give them that. A chance to lead a normal life, crime-free and happy.

So that’s my life now. It’s challenging, heartbreaking sometimes, hard work and so exciting. I can truly say I am happier now than I have ever been.

And how has this journey affected my faith as a Christian? Well that’s a story for another time.

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