Janette McKnight: Why I am proud of the work of the Quakers in our prisons

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Janette McKnight, above, director of the Quaker Service,  is the guest editor of the latest edition of VIEW which examines and reports on issues surrounding prisons in Northern Ireland and further afield. Below is her editorial.

“You made me realise my self-worth – that I was worth something and someone can change. I realise there is more to life than breaking the law – it cleansed my soul.”

These words were spoken by a highly vulnerable man in prison befriended by one of our volunteers.

It’s something we hear over and over again in different words by people who are supported by Quaker Service, and it goes right to the centre of our purpose. Friends, or Quakers, believe that there is “that of God,” “light” or “goodness” in every person. That fundamental belief underpins everything we do and leads us to value the equal worth, unique nature and potential for greatness in everyone regardless of the choices they may have made.

Before I had ever heard of Quaker Service I had become somewhat disenchanted by the way society judged and punished people who had made bad choices. There seemed to be little understanding or interest in what might have led to a crime or a problem. Back in 2005 when I joined Quaker Service, I found an organisation that had been translating Quaker values of peace, equality, truth and simplicity into action since the early 1970s.

I found a group of people who accepted people where they were, who genuinely loved and cared for people and families in crisis, people who had often been cast aside by society as hopeless or unworthy. I felt I had come home.

Quaker Service emerged when Friends starting providing practical support to families visiting internees at the Maze. That grew into the first family prison visitors’ centre in the UK and a series of other projects reaching out and supporting those who are the most forgotten, unpopular or sometimes viewed as “undeserved”.

By delivering practical, social and emotional support services that value and empower people just where they are, we play our part in reducing violence, suffering and disadvantage.

Quaker Cottage, a cross-community family centre, has been delivering a range of therapeutic services for mothers, children and teenagers in some of the most disadvantaged areas in Belfast for over 25 years. Each year, over 100 mums and children referred as those most “in need” or “at risk” by social and health care professionals are supported at Quaker Cottage.

Grant McCullough, our Centre Manager, said: “Many of the mothers are at a desperate low in their lives and looking for a way to escape from the feeling of being trapped by circumstances. “

“At the Cottage we have a reputation for helping mothers on their journey to turn their lives around and we value the opportunity to become involved in their lives and to be able to accept, direct and support them.

“Often we are humbled by some of the battles these woman have had to overcome themselves using their own resources – and often the learning is a two way process.”

Our Teen project at Quaker Cottage provides support for 100 young people each year in three different age groups. The young people pick most of the modules themselves based on their own needs, but all start off with a storytelling project which bonds each group at the earliest stage.

One young man who had the opportunity to tell his story whilst in custody said: “Looking back on my story, I feel bad. I regret all the things I’ve done. I would like other young people to read my story and think about what they’re doing with their life. This could be you.”

Our other key service, Quaker Connections, is a volunteer programme supporting people in custody through befriending and practical support. Since the inception of Quaker Connections in 2011, we have befriended over 120 isolated men in prison. The simplicity of a volunteer – there because they choose to be – visiting someone who has lost their family contact can have outstanding results.

To me, and to Quaker Service, rehabilitation is more than stopping reoffending or helping families out of crisis so they are no longer a risk or drain on services. It is about finding that Divine Spark in them and helping them realise their own value and worth.

We are working not so much to turn lives around, but to empower people to turn them around for themselves.

What would our justice sector look like if those values pervaded it?

It is a time of great change and challenge for the justice sector, in the community sector, and Quaker Service is not immune.

We are looking to the future by asking how we can innovate and grow, how we can continue to reach to the margins and keep making love visible in practical action.

To read the latest issue of VIEW, go to http://viewdigital.org/2016/05/31/latest-issue-view-look-prisons-justice/

To get a free copy of VIEW online, sign up at http://viewdigital.org/sign-get-view/

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