I want to tell you about Jamie.
He got himself into a lot of trouble and was sentenced to life in prison. And then, one Wednesday afternoon, he found himself on week one of the Sycamore Tree course where our volunteer, Ruthie, was the tutor.
Jamie seemed very shy as he entered the prison chapel for the first session— suspicious of the course he was to complete. And, when the learners split into small groups and the men started to fill out their workbooks, it quickly became apparent that Jamie could not read or write.
From week two, Ruthie provided extra help to support him in his learning. And, as the sessions went by, Jamie began to really engage with the course. Our team was so pleased when he completed and passed! “Sycamore Tree had really helped me,” Jamie beamed. As Ruthie left prison that day, she wondered if she would see him again.
Some months later, the Managing Chaplain informed Ruthie that Jamie would like to become one of our Peer Mentors—trained Sycamore Tree graduates providing extra support for a new group of learners on the course. Jamie told the Chaplain he wanted to give something back for all the help and support he had received.
Could the Peer Mentor role be fulfilled by someone who could not read or write? Ruthie decided that, yes, it could. Jamie had taken a lot from the course and could still support the learners in their discussions.
And so, Ruthie went to meet Jamie on the wing to carry out his peer mentor training. She took the paperwork from her folder ready to help him complete it. But then, to her surprise, Jamie took hold of the pen and, in the most beautiful cursive script, began to fill it in. “Jamie!” she exclaimed. “What’s happened?”
He smiled and replied, “After Sycamore Tree, I realised that part of me taking responsibility for my actions was to learn to read and write. So I went to the education department and I did just that! I’ve been on loads of courses since. I want to help other lads like me.”
Jamie is now a regular at chapel and his self-confidence and self-worth are at an all-time high. He is a life transformed. And he’s a brilliant Peer Mentor, too!
For Jamie, Sycamore Tree was the catalyst for positive action. He has worked hard to succeed and to make meaningful changes in his life. And, with God’s help, anything is possible!
Jamie’s story is one of many I am privileged to hear from prisons across England and Wales. You see, our volunteers believe that “no one is beyond hope” and that prisoners are worthy of their time. It’s such a powerful statement when those in prison realise PF people invest their time for free!
As prisons open their gates after the Covid-19 pandemic, we are beginning to receive requests for Sycamore Tree to start up again.
Rev Jo Davies, a chaplain in London, is delighted that Sycamore Tree is running again in her prison. She says,
“Sycamore Tree is transformational! I am always impressed by the speed with which men become aware of their victims and recognise the impact of their crimes. Such is the positive reaction to the course that it was the first activity we were allowed to reintroduce in our prison after the complete lockdown during Covid-19. Our entire Senior Management Team recognised that it was essential to allow Sycamore Tree to run again. They prioritised making it happen because it prevents reoffending and transforms lives—not only of people inside prison but also of possible future victims on the outside.”
Before the pandemic, we were running a record number of Sycamore Tree courses. And, right now, we are gearing up for demand to once again be at an all-time high. Lockdown has increased the need for Sycamore Tree, not lessened it. More people like Jamie are looking for a catalyst for change. And we want to be there to help them.
What’s more, we have not stood still this last 18 months! While our face-to-face ministry has been restricted by the virus, God has provided us with new ways to fulfil our mission:
Since we launched Prayer Line—our free service that allows anyone in prison to call a free number and leave a personal prayer request— in July last year, volunteers and supporters have said over one million prayers for people in prison.
Every week since November, at the request of HMPPS Faith Services, we have sent high quality Bible Studies into every prison in England and Wales. Produced by an experienced group of volunteers, the studies focus on a short passage from Scripture and encourage people in prison to reflect on and creatively engage with the text.
On top of that, over the last year, HMPPS Faith Services has asked us to produce a regular Sunday morning programme on National Prison Radio. Volunteers and friends of PF have contributed by recording readings, prayers and reflections on Scripture that, along with short talks and musical worship, are edited together to form a 40-minute service.
Prayer Line, Bible Studies and our radio services mean that right now our ministry is accessible to thousands more people in prison than ever before.
Add to that the fact that this Christmas, our Angel Tree volunteers plan to deliver more presents to the children of prisoners than last year! And Letter Link continues to provide friendship and comfort to people in prison, many of whom have not seen their loved ones for a very long time.
And so, as prisons start to open up again, we face a difficult prospect. With Sycamore Tree restarting in many prisons, together with our Chaplaincy Support work, we are struggling to find all of the resources we need to fund the fullness of our mission.
I am most grateful for all you are doing to support the future of our ministry. At this time of transition, it is great to have you standing with us. What you are investing is truly transformational for people like Jamie in our prisons.
Yes, I will make a donation.
Your gift will help us continue to support men and women in prison through this crisis, and emerge stronger and ready to reach even more people in Christ’s name. Thank you!
Peter Holloway is the Chief Executive of Prison Fellowship England and Wales.