The 5th May
turned out to be rather a special day for the Association - we had a
speaker who was not going to talk about aircraft. Vernon Lidstone, or
rather, the Reverend Vernon Lidstone, was our Commercial Director until
he left to join Westinghouse in 1983. He was ordained in the Church of
England in 1992 and in 1997 he became a full time Chaplain in the
Prison Service, retiring in 2003. He came to tell us about his
experiences working with prisoners as a Chaplain in our prison system.
There are, said Vernon, four categories of prison; from
Cat.A, the most secure to Cat.D. Cat.A, typically has two sets of walls
and dog handlers. In Cat.B and C prisons there are training
opportunities, and Cat.D are the often criticised 'open' prisons.
Prisoners with long sentences work their way to Cat.D where they are
allowed out into the local community to help them get back in touch
with life outside. Long term prisoners have been cut off from normal
life for so long that they can find even the normal noises of a city
The prison population has and is growing. While Vernon was
at Ley Hill open prison numbers rose from 220 to 503. Overall there are
now 80,000 prisoners of which some 4300 are women causing severe
problems for Social Services in caring for their children. So, asked
Vernon, does prison work? Michael Howard thought so because it protects
the general public, but 74% of prisoners re-offend and end up
back inside very quickly. So Vernon's answer was "I don't think so!"
Prisons are horrible places to be in, mainly, say prisoners,
because of separation from the people they care about. The advantage
that prison gives is that there is time to think and reflect on guilt
and forgiveness. However, prisoners are continually reminded by the
staff of their offences and that they are 'low life'.
The aim of the prison Chaplaincy is to provide forgiveness,
to engender attitude change and to forget the past. This does not fit
with the existing system. Chaplaincy teams now include all faiths:
resident Christian, Moslem and Budhist chaplains with visiting Rabbis,
Jehova's Witnesses and even Pagan ministers.
Chaplains have Statutory Duties: induction of prisoners,
daily hospital visits, segregation unit visits (made with 3 police
officers), and release interviews. The law requires that an Anglican
priest must co-ordinate all religious activities which gives problems
now that Britain has embraced the multi-faith doctrine. Really what is
needed is a non-sectarian religion manager rather than a Co-ordinating
In closed prisons
chapel services are popular with prisoners because it is an opportunity
to meet mates, distribute drugs and mobiles etc in spite of there being
five officers with radios to stop fighting. In open prisons inmates
attend services because they want to. There are three services on
Sundays, the evening being open to visiting family members. Attendance
is about 10% equating to 40 - 50 prisoners. Semons are, refreshingly,
often interrupted with questions. Baptisms are carried out but weddings
are not encouraged!
Prison is a
place of great stress where problems are made worse. For example,
prisoners can't pay rent so families become homeless. The lowest in the
pecking order amongst prisoners are sex offenders, the highest life
sentenced murderers. Of the latter most offended at home and do not
have long records. Prison officers vary. Some are 'dinosaurs' who bully
and never call prisoners by name. Female officers tend to be good with
prisoners. The Chaplains try to ensure fair play, provide counselling
and also advocacy for the mentally ill.
In open prisons inmates go out to work as part of the pre-release
process and there are courses in the basic skills for living which have
been lost in 20 - 30 years' incarceration. Victim awareness courses in
which victims describe to prisoners their own feelings about the crime
committed against them are very effective, some prisoners even being
reduced to tears.
Vernon had been
involved in running 'Kairos' Christian faith courses which ran for 3-4
days with the aims of changing prisoners' attitudes and explaining
alternatives to violence. Feedback from prisoners of different faiths
showed that Kairos was effective but it is no longer allowed because it
is not multi-faith!
Drugs are a huge
problem in all prisons and play a major part in prison life. Of course
prisoners need money so any benefits their partners receive get spent
on heroin or crack making their plight even worse. Prisoners are
generally willing to change but need help.
The current system needs improving. Prison Officers of a
higher calibre are required and at present there are no specific
training courses for potential officers; they are recruited from
The release interface is poor,
prisoners receiving inadequate assistance to move back into the
community often leading to a quick return. More prisons are needed to
cope with the growing population which in itself is an indication of
the failure of the system.
Vernon did not completely avoid aviation as he told us about a model
aircraft club he set up for prisoners. It was very popular
and did the prisoners a lot of good but a new Governor didn't approve
and stamped it out! An example of the blinkered attitude often found in
The interest aroused by this
talk could be judged by the large number of questions from the
audience. Afterwards Vernon's old colleague, Les Palmer, gave the vote
of thanks for this thought provoking talk.