Youth work behind bars

Frontier Youth Trust’s Alastair Jones and Debbie Garden take us behind the 30 foot high walls of young offender’s institutions to unpack the impact of youth work for those who are incarcerated

Over the past decade, there has been a notable increase in the number of Christian organisations working with young people involved in the criminal justice system. There are good reasons for us to intervene. Each year, just under 50,000 sentences are passed on young people (under 21) for their offences by the criminal justice system. More than ten per cent of young people in prison are reported to have attempted suicide and those who have been charged with an offence are far more likely than other young people to experience poor mental health, further involvement in crime, homelessness and unemployment.

It is no surprise that media reports of crime tend to focus on the consequences for the victims and their families. What is less well reported is the impact on the offender. These stories are often also tragic and life-changing for those who perpetrated the crimes. Nigel Pimlott said: ‘A visit to any young offender institution will reveal brokenness and pain on an unprecedented scale. Darkness often overwhelms the wings in which the young people are kept. The spiritual atmosphere is oppressive in many establishments and witnessing teenagers as young as 15 held in such circumstances is extremely distressing. It is not surprising that so many turn to drug abuse, harming themselves and on occasions, attempting suicide.’

While working in a prison, I met 14-yearold Bobby. He had already been in custody for a long time and yet was only part way through serving his sentence. Bobby opened up to me, during a game exploring good and bad choices, that the reason he was there was a consequence of the fact that he had made an impulsive bad choice. This had changed his life forever. He spent his childhood serving a sentence inside an institution. There were two victims of that bad choice.

I remember at the time feeling very sad that he found himself making that mistake and serving such a long sentence at an early age. He was very quiet, and it was a conversation that stayed with me. It kept haunting me over the weekend. As I went about my normal day-off activities, I reflected not only on Bobby’s situation, but on some of the reasons and backgrounds that have resulted in the young people finding themselves incarcerated.


Through our work with young people, we have encountered many reasons for them becoming offenders – anything from wanting to impress an older brother through to simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time or, like Bobby, making an impulsive decision which has disastrous consequences. Many have also been the victims of neglect, abuse, rejection and / or severe trauma.

There are a number of people in the criminal justice system, lawyers, educators and prison officers, who try to do the best for those who they work with, but there are some significant limitations to many of these interventions. Julie Ellis heads up Out4Good, Frontier Youth Trust’s supported housing and mentoring project which works with young adult offenders. She highlights how provision for offenders frequently fails to meet their needs and even exacerbates the problem: ‘Once they’ve been through court or prison, they’re referred to a bunch of agencies and services; one to reduce their offending behaviour, one to deal with their substance use and abuse, one to sort out their benefits, perhaps another to organise employment or training and another to help with housing. They message they get is, “You’re a stack of problems that needs to be fixed,” and all the attention and resources are focussed on fixing their outward behaviour and circumstances, not healing the inner hurt.’

Julie goes on to describe the different approach which, as Christian youth workers, the Out4Good team takes with the young people they work alongside: ‘We look at them as young people, as individuals who have had bad things happen in their lives. Some of those things were done to them, others were their own mistakes. We come alongside them. We commit to getting to know them. They can call or drop in to chat at any time, not just during fixed appointments. We spend time living life together – doing food shopping, going to the beach, gardening, going swimming, decorating the house and eating meals together. We try to understand them and to help them understand themselves, and we look for ways to bring healing. We give second chances and third chances – and fifth and tenth.’

‘The test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children.’

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Kingdom youth work responds first to individuals as people rather than putting the focus on their behaviour. The single-most defining aspect of our Christian faith is the offer of grace, which, by its very nature, intentionally seeks out opportunities to reach, love, bless and heal. As beneficiaries of grace, no wonder the people of God work in grace-driven ways.

In Matthew 25, there is a familiar doorbell verse that some are able to answer: ‘“When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?” The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”’

In our service to young people, a gracedriven, shalom-filled approach, that Christians take, can rewrite the terms of engagement from retribution and punishment through to reconciliation and restoration. The second annual US  national forum on restorative justice produced How you and the church can transform your community, which said, ‘Christian justice views crime as a rift in the shalom of community; the existence of right relationships among individuals, the community of God.’ Sarah Jones, youth worker and assistant head of year in a Manchester high school, describes one way that this restorative approach can work in practice:

‘Restorative Justice gives a victim the opportunity to explain to the offender what the consequences of their action(s) have been. This can help each party to better understand their feelings and thought processes, evaluate their choices and move towards rehabilitation and reconciliation. In school, we use a restorative approach to mediate between young people and enable them to recognise the impact of their actions or words on another. For example, John had been regularly teasing Jamie to the point of confrontation. We worked with them separately to understand their thought processes and feelings at each stage in this case, then brought them together to share those reflections with one another. John was able to recognise that he had upset Jamie and knocked his confidence. Jamie was able to acknowledge that he had reacted angrily towards John. They were then able to find a mutually agreeable way forward. In this case, John offered an apology and Jamie accepted it. For others, it may be just agreeing to avoid each other for a while.’

Kingdom youth work responds first to individuals as people rather than putting the focus on their behaviour  

We must not neglect the spiritual side of both helping the rehabilitation of young offenders and enabling young people to resist being drawn into committing crime. Grace outworked through hope, faith and love can be lived out in our interactions with young people. By not including these as part of our work with young people, we are selling them and society short. The story of Jesus offering redemption to the thief on the cross alongside him is one example of how grace offers reconciliation. Jesus identified with him and pardoned him as he accepted and understood what Jesus was about.

A consistent theme throughout all work with young people is that there is never a quick fix. Youth work is always a rollercoaster, even in a church youth group. Young people who have been caught up in the criminal justice system experience the swing of highs and lows even more than other teenagers. It is not straightforward. There will be times of ‘two steps forward, eight steps back’. Nevertheless, I give thanks to God for all those faithful youth workers and agencies that aren’t content with the way things are now and work to bring the kingdom closer to the lives of young people, whatever side of the wall they live on.


Some things to think about:

• Take some time to reflect on your own understanding and theology of justice. Where do the concepts of retribution, punishment, restoration and reconciliation fit with your perspective?

• If many young offenders are themselves victims of crime or abuse, what role might the Church have in responding to these issues before young people become engaged in crime?

• What opportunities to practice grace might be before you in your youth work context?

Just as we’re not all called to overseas mission, not every youth worker is called to work in prisons. However, if you are working with young people at risk, then you will almost inevitably come across young people caught up in the criminal justice system for one reason or another. If you are interested in getting involved in prison work, a number of Christian organisations do priceless work with young offenders, such as those featured in these case studies. Contact them for further information.

(The names in this article have been changed to protect the confidentiality of the young people concerned.)

Case Studies

Alpha UK

I first met Ryan when he was 15 years old and just starting his GCSEs. He worked hard, often studying in his room when others might be out with their friends or watching TV. When exam time came, he passed and did well. Like many people his age, Ryan decided that his next step was to move onto AS Levels. He decided to do what he enjoyed and picked maths, physics and psychology. Here was my opportunity to help.

I was only 19 at the time. Two years earlier I had been in the same position as Ryan, doing my AS Levels. I, like Ryan, had studied psychology, so we spent many hours going through examples, theories, approaches and past-papers and remarkably, Ryan passed. Ryan moved on from where I worked, but we kept in contact and last September, he called to tell me he wanted to apply to university. This was another opportunity for me to help: as he wrote his personal statement, I would look at each bit, suggest changes and send it back, until the personal statement looked good to go. In September this year, Ryan moved to a brand new city, into new accommodation and enrolled on a combined master’s degree programme in mechanical engineering.

What makes this story different is that I met Ryan in a high security prison. I was a new youth worker there and he, aged just 15, was at the beginning of a five year sentence for armed robbery.

The beautiful irony of this situation is that when Ryan leaves university, he will be more qualified than I am. Youth work is youth work wherever you go. It’s about unlocking potential in young people, helping them realise their ambitions and helping them to remove the barriers that might hold them back, giving them an opportunity to hope and an opportunity to dream

 Iwan Matheson, 22, has several years of chaplaincy experience in young offender’s institutes and prisons across the UK and is the prisons development manager at Alpha UK.

YFC Reflex and The Message Trust

Mark came to see me at the prison chapel. He’d been inside for about a year and his family had rejected their 19-year-old son. He had no letters, no visits and, as far as he could tell, no one that cared. He was struggling with his sexuality in a testosteronefilled environment. He wanted help and turned to the chapel. We talked about his struggles and worries and his frustrations and fears about his release from custody. Over a few weeks, we got to know Mark quite well, never once condemning him or chastising him, simply encouraging and supporting him. There were no theological debates about his sexuality, nor unpicking of his criminal offence. He didn’t need anyone making him feel worse than he already did. Over the coming weeks, Mark came along to our Alpha course in the prison, and got to know a God who loves him. Mark joined the lifegroup and slowly began to put his faith in Jesus and began to find a new hope for life.

Upon his release, Mark had nowhere to go, so we worked with probation services to find him some accommodation. As he had no contact with family or friends, this meant making a whole new start in a new city. I met Mark at the prison gates and drove him the 20 miles to his new home. We took a walk around the local supermarket, helping him to budget and spend the small amount of money he had as wisely as possible. Lunch was spent introducing him to a volunteer mentor from a local church, then we went to find his new home to help him get settled in.

Four years on, the church has continued to support Mark and has become a new family to him. He has found community, support, belonging, identity, love and hope. Mark has completed the church’s gap year ministry programme and now works a couple of part-time jobs as well as running a homeless outreach project, witnessing to some of the most hopeless in his city and bringing hope and food to them. The journey hasn’t been an easy one, and we are still praying for reconciliation with his family, but Mark has been, and is being transformed from glory to glory each day.

Tim Mycock is The Message in Prisons manager.

Alastair Jones is CEO of the Frontier Youth Trust.

Debbie Garden manages Frontier Youth Trust’s Out4Good project.  

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