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Faith-based Prison Rehabilitation

An innovative New Zealand prison unit is using prayer and spiritual transformation as a means to reduce prisoner re-offending. The Faith-Based Unit at Rimutaku Prison is the first of its kind in Australasia and represents a unique Christian approach to rehabilitating convicted criminals.

Set in green and rolling countryside near Trentham, north of Wellington, Rimutaka Prison is surrounded by forbidding high fences topped with curls of uninviting razor wire. Incongruously, pukekos and ducks wander freely about the prison, which accommodates up to 671 male inmates.

Amidst the bars, fences and steely-eyed prison officers is a rather special little prison within a prison. The Faith-based unit is a Christ-focused community that is home to up to 60 inmates serving out the latter parts of their sentences. This Christian community encourages inmates to explore the Christian faith in depth and includes regular prayer and worship.

Operating since October, the unit is based on successful models in the continental Americas. It represents a partnership between the Corrections Department and Prison Fellowship of New Zealand. The physical layout of the unit is similar to any other medium-low security units, with small individual rooms for inmates, an outdoor exercise yard, dining room, education room and small chapel. As in other units, inmates can take part in education programmes that focus on literacy, numeracy and employment skills. Inmates are also expected to work in fields such as carpentry, painting, horticulture and catering. Inmates in the unit are also subject to standard prison regulations such as cell inspections and drug testing.
The big difference, however, is in the faith-based unit’s added emphasis on Christianity as a means to turn prisoners away from crime and towards a positive future. The unit operates on six core values: integrity, restoration, responsibility, community building, affirmation and productivity.

Each inmate is a member of a Living Unit Group (LUG) that represents a defacto family with which inmates undergo many of their activities. The LUGs represent an opportunity to develop Christian trust and commitment toward others in the group and are a place to share and feel safe. Inmates meet in their LUGs every weekday evening for prayer and discussion.

Another significant aspect of the programme is Operation Jericho, a Prison Fellowship initiative that pairs each inmate with a trained volunteer mentor from local churches. Each mentor develops a one-to-one relationship with an inmate that continues after release, providing ongoing support and advice to aid their reintegration into society.

The unit also offers pastoral care and a professional counsellor who provides confidential counselling from a Christian perspective.
Unit Manager Richard Symonds says the driving force behind the unit is the reduction of reoffending. The unit work by attempting to instill normal societal values in inmates. ‘We want to teach Christian values, which are everyday living values and put [inmates] in touch with their Christianity,’ he says.

Inmates’ desire to turn up to church and take part in other unit activities should come from inside rather than be imposed, so part of the unit’s job is to help inmates internalise Christian values.

Mr Symonds says being in the unit is very much a journey for inmates. Newly arrived inmates may not have started that journey yet, but they are at least willing to give it a go. ‘We don’t pre-judge people – we explore where they are at.’

Programmes Manager Patrick Lewis, a Christian for 22 years, says that when inmates arrive at the unit they come into a battlefield of mind and spirituality. ‘It’s a big ask to get 60 guys to change their way of thinking [but] our emphasis is very much on transformation through the power of God.’ The unit helps inmates to learn about God and develop an identity in Christ. ‘It gives them hope for the future.’

Behaviour in the faith-based unit is generally better than that found in other units, but an exception has been the death of an inmate. Mr Symonds notes that the killing of one inmate by another is extremely rare in New Zealand prisons and the incident was not specifically related to the unit itself. ‘We don’t expect 100 per cent success, but we aim for it. It’s great when you start to see positive changes,’ he says.
Inmates do not have to be Christian to qualify for admission to the unit, although a number have been baptised or otherwise found God since joining. According to information given to interested inmates, the guiding principle for admittance is that the inmate ‘wishes to explore the Christian faith’. It is open to all inmates so long as they have ‘a genuine desire to explore the Christian faith’.
Says Mr Symonds: ‘You don’t have to be a Christian to come here, but you have to be able to support the values.’ He says that about half of the unit’s staff are Christians. Although he himself is not a practicing Christian, he is a firm supporter of the values. ‘I am passionate about this unit working and I support the principles we are teaching here,’ he says.

The unit programme is structured around a four-part sequence of orientation, transformation, restoration and reintegration. Time spent in the unit is flexible depending on individual cases, but ranges from six to 18 months. Inmates typically join the unit in the latter part of their sentence.

The orientation phase, which lasts about a month, includes assessments of Christian understanding and faith development; family, community and family integration; and the level of education.

The second phase, transformation, continues for up to 9 months and focuses on ‘rebuilding and transforming inmates’ values and character’.
Mr Symonds says that part of this process is about confronting people in an open and positive environment. ‘We have had occasions where inappropriate language or threats occur, but this is improving. Expressing disagreement is legitimate, but inmates have to learn to respect what others say without resorting to threatening or abusive language.

Mr Lewis says transformation is about working with God to reform their lives. ‘This is a transformation spiritually. You can change a man’s mind many times in life, but if you change his heart, you will change his life.’

The third phase involves restoration, which the unit hopes to begin in July, and would run for up to six months. It includes awareness of the consequences of their crimes, accountability for harm done and reconciliation with family, community and victims. It also involves mentors, who are available to give support for up to two years after release.

Mr Symonds says that instilling responsibility is a huge part of the programme. Inmates are given the opportunity of facing up to their offending and to think about the consequences of their actions. ‘We say that God will forgive you, but you have to admit to the sin first. You must be responsible for everything you have done. Some people are in denial.’

Mr Lewis says restoration is about victims meeting offenders, although this does not involve the victim of a particular inmate. ‘It gives victims a chance to ask questions and for inmates to understand what they have done. It gives some closure to victims and inmates add extra perspective.’

The Salvation Army’s Major Peter Thorp -- a long-time member of the Prison Fellowship of New Zealand board -- says the unit makes Christian values relevant to inmates. ‘For some inmates, things need to be brought back into a proper perspective.’

The final stage is reintegration and operates after release with the help of mentors, the church community and government agencies such as Housing New Zealand.

Mr Symonds points out that although the faith-based unit is based on overseas models, it has been tailored for New Zealand conditions. For example, the unit allows mentors into the prison, whereas in the U.S., mentors are not allowed to meet inmates until after release. The NZ version ‘gives a better chance for the system to work’ because mentors are able to develop relationships with inmates prior to release.

In another example, the unit is open to both Christians and non-Christians, reflecting the smaller base of practicing Christians in New Zealand society.
Additionally, assessments that written for the U.S. population had to be adapted to take account of the NZ education system and questions about whanau (family).

Mr Symonds says that the existing chapel is too small for the purposes of the unit. In a typical prison unit 10 people would be a good turnout to a chapel service, but the faith-based unit has a congregaton of 60. There are plans, therefore, to extend chapel facilities to cater for the higher level of church attendance. Although there are no firm plans, it is possible that the unit may be replicated in another prison.

Inmate Mike* is serving a two-and-a-half-year sentence for burglary. He still has more than half of his time to go. Mike is  no stranger to prison, this being his fourth jail term in 15 years. He has been in the FBU since February and is delighted to be part of the programme. ‘I was welcomed here [and] felt at ease because I was here for a reason.’

Mike says that he was a part-time Christian before coming to jail. ‘I was very much a user and abuser of people. I didn’t care who I ripped off. My Christianity was not going anywhere.’

Mike says that he could not move on until he acknowledged what he had done and realised what God wanted from him. ‘I felt a real strong need to come forward about my crimes.’ After he had turned himself in, ‘it was like a big burden taken off my shoulders just like that.’

Mike says he had not previously cared about the thoughts of his victims, but now feels that ‘God had placed in my heart how it felt for them.’ He wrote an apology letter.

He says the faith-based unit has definitely been helpful in preparing for a return back to society. ‘I had to go back to basics of Christianity. That has strengthened me [and] allowed me to see things the way they are supposed to be.’

‘I feel that God has put inmates here [in this unit] for a reason.’ Those stronger in faith are able to pray for the others. He feels that, as he prays for others, he is a giver rather than a taker.

Mike says that he has noticed a transformation in his own behaviour. Where before he used to curse and get angry, now he finds himself unable to do either any more. He now has greater perspective and feels himself a better person. ‘I spend more quality time praying for other people.’

‘I was in the darkness. God has allowed me to be in the light of things, to see the darkness and to pray against it.’

‘No matter what happens, God will always be there, if people will only allow themselves to put their faith and trust in him.’

Mike says that once he gave himself to God, he also found it much easier to give up smoking.

Mike is not the inmates’ real name.


Used with permission of The Salvation Army's War Cry magazine.

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