Church of England

The power of God's love to transform hardened criminals


Over the course of the last week, the Church of England has been running a fascinating series of podcasts talking to offenders currently in prison about finding God and the difference their faith is making as they serve out their sentences.

These interviews have been running as part of Prisons Week, an ecumenical initiative which since 1975 has united Christians from all denominations to pray for and raise awareness of the needs of prisoners and their families, victims of offenders, prison staff and all those involved in the justice system. 

We should never lose sight of the fact that crime produces victims – with all the pain and resulting trauma they often endure – and that they deserve a level of support that is sadly often lacking. Crime deserves appropriate punishment, but without restorative justice and rehabilitation the system fails to fully serve its purpose. Many of those who have been convicted are victims too: they have also been let down by the system and have experienced high levels of brokenness in their upbringings. Here are just a few of the statistics:

  • Fewer than 1% of all children in England are in care, but looked after children make up 30% of boys and 44% of girls in custody.
  • 46% of women in prison have been identified as having suffered a history of domestic abuse.
  • 53% of women and 27% of men in prison reported having experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse as a child.
  • An estimate of 36% of prisoners interviewed in a Ministry of Justice study were considered to have a disability when survey answers about disability and health, including mental health, were screened.
  • 26% of women and 16% of men said they had received treatment for a mental health problem in the year before custody
  • 47% of prisoners say they have no qualifications. This compares to 15% of the working age general population in the UK.
  • 41% of men, 30% of women and 52% of young offenders were permanently excluded from school.
  • 15% of newly sentenced prisoners reported being homeless before custody. 9% were sleeping rough.

As is so often the case, it is Christian charities and organisations which are doing a great deal of difficult and practical work to heal wounds and bring restoration; giving prisoners a better chance of reintegrating into society and reducing their chances of re-offending. Prison Fellowship sends volunteers into 40 prisons across the country to run the Sycamore Tree programme, teaching the principles of restorative justice and allowing victims to present their experiences to prisoners. Caring for Ex-Offenders, which is based at Holy Trinity Brompton in London, coordinates a link between those coming out of prison and their local church communities in order to better facilitate their resettlement into society.

These initiatives and others are statistically proven to mitigate instances of recidivism. If it were not for the determination of local churches, many ex-prisoners would fall back into patterns of criminal behaviour.

My church has a history of prisons work. This is partly due to being situated near Hollesley Bay Prison, from which Andy Coulson was released on Friday. Our  teams regularly go into the prison to lead services and meet with prisoners. We have hosted a prison work conference, and have a house run in partnership with Hope Into Action that accommodates ex-offenders, providing them with mentoring and other life skills. We have visiting speakers who have become Christians whilst in prison, and we also have a team run by an ex-prisoner, John – also known as Finny – who visit prisons around the country putting on gigs and allowing him to share his story of God’s transformative power in his life.

Programmes have an important role in turning round the lives of offenders, but it is often when you hear testimonies which tell of the impact of coming into a relationship with Jesus that it becomes clear that nothing comes near to bringing true and lasting redemption compared to knowing the love of God. These are just a taste of the stories of John and Darrell, who came to our church in May, and Shane, who is speaking next week:

John Finlinson‘s own father and grandfather were street boxers. When he was a small boy his dad took him round the back of the house and demanded that he hit him “because he wanted me to grow up a fighter”. Growing up, he found an outlet in smashing up
cars and later got heavily into drugs.

John was first sent to prison at the age of 12. At 19 he was put on trial for violently entering a house with intent to steal and threatening to kill. Previously he might have lied in court but this time, in desperation, he called out to God, became a Christian and, as a result, came clean during his trial about his crimes. He was sentenced to six years.

His stint at HMP Dartmoor turned out to be the most transforming period
of his life: ‘‘I used to hate authority – even the church to some degree. But you can be
transformed by the renewing of your mind.” That renewal came through the Bible: “It was like metal to a magnet.” In the past he had taken part in drink and drug-fuelled sessions with friends, trying to unravel some of the key questions about life. “But here in the Bible were the answers about how it all began.” Thankfully he wasn’t left alone in his searching, and the prison chaplain at Dartmoor not only offered spiritual but practical help as well, giving John a guitar and later the landscaping tools that enabled him to start his own business. “He became a father to me,” says John.

He had learned to play the guitar during one of his earlier prison sentences when he was about 12. He started writing songs about coming to faith, redemption and his spiritual experiences. Now, during his visits to prisons with his band, along with sharing his testimony he gives away copies of his albums and hands out ‘Freedom Packs’ which contain practical resources for life outside prison, including information about being linked up with local churches.

Darrell Tunningley began his criminal career at the age of 11 by stealing badges from expensive cars. By the age of 16 he was selling heroin and cocaine and funding a £300-a-day heroin habit and had gained a formidable reputation for his violent behaviour. At 17 he was jailed for five-and-a-half years for his part in an armed robbery. He describes himself at this point in his life as being so evil he was like the antichrist; dead on the inside and full of hate and anger and guilt.

In prison he continued his drug-dealing and violence, repeatedly being moved between security categories following unprovoked assaults on other inmates. One day at HMP Wolds in East Yorkshire something happened that would change the course of Darrell’s life forever: another inmate invited him to attend an Alpha Course. He decided to go along purely to get out of his cell for an afternoon, and for the free biscuits.

When he arrived for the session he found two retired nuns leading it. He gave them a tirade of verbal abuse, but all they did was to listen and reply with love and compassion. Their response completely stopped Darrell in his tracks and broke something inside him. He went back to his cell and, just before he went to sleep, prayed to God vowing to devote his life to Him if He would take away his demons.

The next morning Darrell woke up, but when he tried to have his usual cigarette he felt violently sick. The feeling went away only when he threw his cigarettes and lighter out of the window. Exactly the same thing happened with his cannabis. When he looked in the mirror he didn’t recognise the face staring back at him; it was no longer filled with hate. When he left his cell the other inmates immediately saw that something had changed. His anger and violent temperament had vanished. He knew that God had done something remarkable in him, and so he followed through with his promise.

Darrell is now the senior pastor at Hope Corner Church in Runcorn, but his background is not that of your usual church minister. As well as leading a church, Darrell also visits prisons and travels around the world explaining how God has utterly transformed him.

For many years, Shane Taylor was considered to be one of the most dangerous prisoners in Britain’s jails. Originally jailed at 19 for attempted murder, he had his sentence extended by four years when he attacked a prison officer with a broken glass in an incident that provoked a riot. After that, he was sent to some of Britain’s most secure ‘Category A’ institutions, where he was often held in solitary confinement because of his violence toward prison officers.

When Shane was 26 he met a fellow prisoner called Robert Bull. He was in prison for murder, but since being jailed had become a Christian. He was saying a great many things that Shane describes as “mad”. “But the one thing that stuck in my mind was when he said this: ‘I’ve been in prison for fifteen years and am probably never getting out – but I’m free.’ I used to think, ‘What’s he on about? How can he be free if he’s never getting out …?’ He was on the same wing as me and he kept coming to me and giving me little booklets like Why Jesus? by Nicky Gumbel. I used to chuck them on the side but every now and then when I was bored, I’d pick up the booklet and read through it. I was put in segregation again for causing riots and as I sat there in my cell I got a big vision of that Christian prisoner, Robert Bull, and an urge telling me to write him a letter. Eventually I wrote this letter to him (he was in the normal wing), saying, ‘I’ve got a strong urge telling me to write you a letter and a vision of you in my head, so I’m writing to you …’ He wrote back, ‘The Lord’s trying to open your eyes, to get to your heart. Just let go.’ I thought, ‘He’s crazy’ but I continued writing to him. I even started to read the Gideon’s Bible in my cell a little.”

Shane ended up attending an Alpha Course. After the session on the Holy Spirit, the chaplain prayed for him. “Eddie put his hand on my head and prayed for me. Then he took his hand off and said, ‘Now you pray.’ I said, ‘What about?’ And he said, ‘From your heart – let it out and pray.’ I said, ‘Jesus Christ, I know you died on a cross for me. Please, I don’t like who I am, please forgive me, please.’ Then I sat back and we started talking. As I talked I started to feel a weird feeling in my belly. Then I started to feel this bubbly feeling slowly coming up my body  – through my legs, my chest. When it got to about halfway I started to feel tears coming into my eyes. I tried to hold it back. I stopped talking, thinking that was going to stop it, because I didn’t want to cry. Here I was, a hard man in prison – I didn’t want to cry. But it rose up and up and up until suddenly I began crying my eyes out. I hadn’t cried in years. I cried for about five minutes and I could feel a weight being lifted off me because I felt light. Eddie said in a nice voice, ‘That’s the Holy Spirit. It’s Jesus.’

“I felt like I was in this room where although there was natural light, somebody switched on another light and everything suddenly became clearer than before. It felt as if I’d had an invisible layer covering my eyes and it was rubbed away, making everything even clearer. In that split second I knew it was real. I knew God existed, I knew Jesus had touched me and that I was going to live for him forever. My behaviour changed so much that I went from being in the segregation to getting a trusted job in the chaplaincy within a few weeks.

“Jesus has changed my life. Before I was a man of pure hate and anger. Jesus has showed me how to love and how to forgive. Almost all the people I’ve upset, all the people I stabbed, all the people I hurt have forgiven me and now we talk. Now I’m helping with Alpha courses in prisons. It’s a miracle that I’m allowed to go visiting prisons when I’ve just been released from a maximum-security prison. Now I’m able to tell other prisoners about Jesus – it’s amazing.” (An interview with Shane recently appeared in May’s GQ magazine).

The transformative power that comes from repentance and giving ourselves to God is often most starkly demonstrated in the lives of those who have fallen the furthest and have the most to gain. But this is the reality of the Christian faith for each one of us. God changes lives for the better, and miracles are His currency. Most Christians’ lives are a lot more tame than John’s or Darrell’s or Shane’s, but their experiences are far from being unique. Christianity is not a crutch or an intellectual argument to be won – it goes far, far deeper. We would sometimes do well to remember that.