Programme reaches one prisoner at a time

Prison Fellowship Bermuda is a voluntary programme that operates in the Island?s prison system and seeks to give inmates spiritual healing through the word of God. Over the past three decades it has helped men and women by giving them spiritual tools to turn their lives around. Pictured from left to right: PFM Chairman Edward Smith, board member Sheridan Scotton, volunteer Jennifer Bascome, board member and former inmate Raymond Symonds, volunteer co-ordinator Louise Smith and board member and co-chair Rudolph Hollis. Photo by Tamell Simons
By Nadia Arandjelovic
Rudolph ‘Buddy’ Hollis was leading a weekly prison ministry session at the Westgate Correctional Facility when he was approached one day by an inmate.
The man was being held in the maximum security area of the prison and was known to pace up and down the back of the room, rather than participate in the Prison Fellowship Bermuda programme.
Despite his apparent disinterest the man began coming regularly.
“After one session was over and everyone was leaving he came to talk to me,” Mr Hollis said.
“He said ‘I was a higher-up in one of these gangs and I used to order these guys to do this and that. I see you are committed to come out but right now what is happening is I can’t seem to be soft because it would be challenging for me. I would like to come out and be committed but there are too many issues in these walls to do that’.”
Mr Hollis told the man he would pray for him and over the new few weeks noticed a gradual change in his attitude and behaviour.
“He was at least reading his bible and was not as loud or aggressive as he was in the past and that was positive in itself. He was one of the people more committed to coming out on a regular basis.”
Many other success stories have been witnessed by the committed volunteers of the Prison Fellowship Bermuda (PFB) Programme.
Through the healing power of God’s word they have seen dozens of prisoners commit to opening a new chapter in their lives.
PFB Chairman Edward (Ice-Water) Smith has been giving prison inmates spiritual guidance for the past 26 years. “I don’t regret a moment having the opportunity to share with them,” he said.
He said the programme, which is voluntary and non-denominational, had no way of tracking men and women once they were released from jail.
But admitted “once and a while” he runs into people who come up and thank him on the street.
“One man came up and told me he turned his life around and now has his own business. It makes me feel really good to know my life’s work is not in vain. I have several of them like that.
“A lot of them are reluctant to come in [to the programme at first], but if you keep showing up at some point God will move on their heart and they will come in. And I congratulate them all the time because they come and they were obedient.”
He said many of the people in the prisons have a problem with God and don’t believe He’s real until they get into trouble and have nowhere to turn.
In many cases pride keeps people away from pursuing a relationship with the Lord, said Mr Smith.
But he said he tries to relate to them on a basic level and stress that we’ve all made mistakes and fallen short of perfection.
PFB was first chartered in 1981 after Government MP Neletha Butterfield and businessman Jack Harris saw the need in the Island’s prison systems.
Dedicated volunteers from religious denominations across the Island have since teamed up to offer the programme once weekly at the Prison Farm and Co-Educational Facility and four times a week at the Westgate Correctional Facility.
Volunteer co-ordinator Grenell Stocks said they regularly see changes in people’s attitudes and notice a greater willingness to come out and learn more about the Lord.
“We had one man who was solemn all the time. He couldn’t speak a proper sentence. He would grumble, but now he’s smiling and talking and reading so we can understand and it’s so amazing. It’s so much change in this young man and he comes out every week.”
Another man accepted Christ recently after struggling for a short while with his own inner demons.
“One part knows what’s right and the other part does what’s wrong. He was ready to make that step and commitment and he realised he was ready to [let God] change his life,” said volunteer Jennifer Bascome.
Despite the positive benefits of the programme, board member Mr Hollis said the charity still faces challenges in getting people to donate.
“The biggest challenge is going to people who say, particularly with the climate of violence, ‘why should I give money to these prisoners?’”
But he asserted that the importance of the programme was to break the cycle of violence, known as the “generational curse”.
Board member Sheridan Scotton said statistics show people are six times as likely to end up in prison if they have a parent in jail.
She said PFB was looking to offer a restorative justice programme that could help families heal the harms caused by crime.
“Prison Fellowship International [operating in 123 countries] has been offering programmes that bring together victims and perpetrators and have had great success in healing of the hearts of victims and inmates,” she said.
Four local volunteers recently came back to the Island after undergoing an intensive training course in restorative justice at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. The training is ongoing and PFB hope to utilise these skills in the future.
However the negative stigmas are still something the charity is hoping to change.
Volunteer co-ordinator Ms Stocks said she knows all to well about the negative public perception around the prison population.
Growing up in the United States, and with a father who worked in the prisons, she had the mentality of ‘If they did the crime, then do the time and lock away the key’.
“That was until I started going into the prison and saw these people are just like me. They have become my children and grandchildren and I grew full of compassion for them.
“It really changed my life and the way I think about things,” Ms Stocks said. “We have to show love to everyone because we all mess up. If they do not get it at home or in the prisons, because the officers have a job to do, when we go there we have to really show love and share the gospel.”
PFB offers an Angel Tree programme each holiday season with the help of their partner churches. Church members donate gifts and inmates can nominate their children to take part.
They run a similar initiative that gives children back-to-school supplies in September.
The charity is also trying to raise money so they can open up a physical location for people to stop in and get spiritual counselling upon their release from jail.
Prison Fellowship Bermuda will be hosting a Tag Day next Wednesday (November 30) from 9am until 3 or 4pm at select locations, including MarketPlace stores in Hamilton and Heron Bay Plaza, Lindos in Devonshire and the HSBC and Butterfield Bank buildings in the city.
Money will go towards supplies needed to run their various programmes.
For more information e-mail prisonfellowship[AT] or phone 295-9462.

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