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Archbishop visits HMP Grendon - Guardian article by Andrew Brown

Archbishop at HMP Grendon with the Rt Revd Alan Wilson, Bishop of Buckingham

Friday 8th July 2011

In an article published today in the Guardian Online, Andrew Brown describes a visit by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, to HMP Grendon.

The full text of the article follows.

The Archbishop and the prisoners

On a prison visit, Rowan Williams shows a wittier, humbler side – and an enthusiasm for unglamorous projects

The archbishop sat on a plain chair in a chapel which was subtly wrong. The glass in the windows was thick and whorled, impossible to see through; and the panes were separated not by lead but thick concrete, in circles rather smaller than a man could squeeze through. The ushers were broad-shouldered men in pressed shirts standing quietly against the walls.

The men who entered were silent and seemed tired as if they had walked a long way from some place fashion had never reached. A couple wore rosaries or crosses. Two or three looked hard, with tattoos and sharp muscles. They sat in a loose circle in front of the archbishop of Canterbury on plain chairs just like his. He did not pray. They began to introduce themselves, exactly as they would if he were a new inmate.

"I'm doing life for murder, coming off a drug episode. Welcome to Grendon." "I've been 34 years, inside. Doing life for murder, been here before. I have difficulties dealing with people in authority. Welcome to Grendon." "I'm doing life for killing my girlfriend. I come here to understand myself and why I chose certain routes to get here. Welcome to Grendon."

"I'm doing two life sentences. This really is hard. Welcome to Grendon." This from a young man with arched eyebrows, large, deep-set eyes and a look of sincerity and pain.

"Indecent assault. ... attempted murder. Been here three years. Second time."

Grendon is not an ordinary prison. It is a unique experiment within the prison system, which has been going for 50 years. In Grendon, prisoners are all members of a therapeutic community as well. They have to talk about who they are, and why they came there, in the hope that they can change and in future keep out. Talking about these things is a sign of dangerous weakness in most of the rest of the prison system.

But "this place runs on honesty and truth", said one prisoner. "If something ever happened to you then it has happened to other group members."

The only way to get a feeling for what goes on is to be exposed to it, so when Rowan Williams came to visit, they sat him down, as they do to most visitors, as if he were a part of a therapy group. When they had introduced themselves they asked him questions.

How do you get to be Archbishop of Canterbury? "By being very wicked in a previous life." When the laughter died he gave a careful explanation of the process, which managed to be scrupulously confusing until a Catholic prisoner said: "So you're elected, like the pope?" Yes, said Williams, "Though the pope doesn't have a prime minister to worry about." He went on to enumerate the five levels that he thought composed his job, from being the bishop for east Kent to being "a kind of president of the worldwide family of Anglican churches. I try to visit where churches are in trouble." He talked as if the most important and worthwhile of these jobs was the least in the eyes of the world: being a diocesan bishop in east Kent (the other half of Kent is looked after by the Bishop of Rochester). As for his job supposedly running the Church of England, he described it as "meetings, paperwork, decisions about money."

Someone raised the royal wedding. "Big surprise: the first man to ask that," said Williams and got a heartfelt laugh. He did not sound woolly in this context at all. No, no, said the prisoner. I wanted to know how you coped with all the attention.

"It's about the habits you try to form: making time every day to be quiet with God. That's what I am answerable to. It's very important to settle yourself and to remind myself that his is time God gives me, not just time I give to God. For me [prayer] is a matter of trying to a clear a space in my head."

He talked about this daily prayer in the most careful, practical way, almost as if it was therapy: "Breathe regularly, sit upright, breathe, and say some simple words. I will often say 'Lord have mercy' slowly, at intervals, and just let it settle into my stomach. It doesn't always seem to work. Sometime I can be there for half an hour and the thoughts just go galloping round like horses in the Grand National. Then I have to remind myself that this is time God gives to me, and not just time I give to God." Then, still in the same matter of fact way, he said: "You are trying to open the cellar door and be aware of the darkness underneath the water."

I thought of the spirit brooding over the watery chaos in Genesis.

It was the closest he came to formal preaching, or even to talk about Jesus; and when a prisoner asked about "the whatever it is upstairs, where you've got quite a pull", he meant the House of Lords, or perhaps the government, not heaven: "Do you believe that the MPs and so on who talk about social exclusion know anything about it at all?

"Good question," said Williams. "I'm a bit sceptical that they do ... I think that prison ought to be about equipping people to be what they have got it in them to be. What if prisons were really like that?"

Grendon, so far as possible, actually is like that. It is unique, and has been for the 50 years of its existence, because it is both a prison and a therapeutic community, in which the prisoners must work with themselves, with each other, and with the staff to address the causes of their wrongdoing. One of the prisoners said in the introduction session that the biggest surprise of the prison had been what had happened to him: "From the age of 10 I had just stuck two fingers up at society. I hated the world. But if you are honest with yourself and make yourself vulnerable you will change."

It doesn't work for everybody. Peter Bennett, the governor, a stocky forceful man with an air of melancholy, describes his success in terms that sound self-deprecating until you realise what they imply about some other prisoners. "We have very little self-harm. Very little bullying; a very low incidence of drugs – sometimes none. Grendon does make a difference."

He doesn't claim anything like complete success. "We see – not stunning, not incredible – but meaningful improvements. Grendon is essentially and profoundly a humane prison: the underlying humanity is embedded in bricks and mortar. It is a place where people behave with great respect to one another."

There were prisoners even in the group I saw who were back inside for the second time. But there is something remarkable going on there. "The great trick is to run a democratic therapeutic committee inside a hierarchical prison. We have to allow a space for therapy and balance that with security."

The high fences around the prison are topped with barbed wire; all visitors pass through a kind of security airlock. This is a jail all right. The men are locked up all night and at lunchtime too. But they are treated as human beings, and encouraged to treat each other that way, too. They seem to respond.

"In other jails, staff didn't seem to have that much pride in their job," said one prisoner. "But they're not here just because they want the money.

"In the first carol service here I met the number one governor, Peter Bennett, and – he's all nice. [laughter] I was wondering what's that about. He sees you as a human being. It softens your heart."

It is exactly the kind of transformation that Williams most believes in. For all his reputation as a woolly thinker, he does talk about these things in a practical way. Prayer works because it does centre him. He was scrupulous to avoid religious language except when he was asked to do so. When he prayed at the end of the meeting, he did not once mention sin or forgiveness but talked as if healing and honesty were things that all of us needed, without affectation.

After the prisoners left the meeting, to be locked down for lunch, Williams went upstairs to a meeting with the staff. He became rather donnish again as he talked about Ken Clarke's attempts to cut the prison population: "We are at a very interesting time, where the huge expense of the way that we currently do things is unsustainable. The [present prison system] is unaffordable in perpetuity. Grendon has been going for half a century and I hope we can all do something to take advantage of this window of opportunity."

I had asked to come on this visit because I couldn't see the point of a formal interview. It's not just that Williams dislikes dealing with the media, though he clearly does – asked by a prisoner whether he regretted any of the things he had said in public, he replied immediately: "How long have you got?" The problem is that his position on gay clergy is irredeemably compromised. And since that is the only problem that the press believes he actually has the power to do something about, his opinions on other subjects are much less interesting.

But watching him at work like this it seemed possible that he also considers his own opinions to be the least interesting parts of his job. His enthusiasm, when he talked about it, was all about small-scale and unglamorous projects.

Of all the various layers of his job, the only two he spoke of with real passion were his responsibilities in east Kent, and his visits to suffering and persecuted churches abroad. Perhaps a room full of repentant murderers has a more wholesome atmosphere than a committee of ecclesiastical politicians all convinced of their own righteousness. In any case, at Grendon he was witty, straightforward, and humble in a way I have never seen him in public before. Even if he has no more power in government than he has over his own church, his visit did what good he could. No wonder he believes in localism. 

© Andrew Brown 

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